It’s All True

Timeline Theatre Company

An extraordinary episode in American theater occurred on June 16, 1937. A nondescript truck arrived at about 6 PM in midtown Manhattan to deliver a beat-up piano. It had been ordered by Orson Welles and John Houseman–then directors of the burgeoning theater company Project 891–for opening night of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a “labor opera” created under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, part of the controversial Works Projects Administration. A few days earlier, in the wake of violent labor strikes across the nation, WPA director Harry Hopkins had announced that no new FTP performances could open, a clear attempt to censor Blitzstein’s work. Welles and Houseman said then that they would take over the show as independent producers and open on schedule. But three hours before curtain, they hadn’t yet found a theater. With the door of the Maxine Elliott space padlocked, the truck driver started driving in circles.

Once Wells and Houseman announced they’d offer an independent production, the actors’ and musicians’ unions insisted on union pay rates–well beyond the company’s reach financially. Welles and Houseman decided to do the show without musicians or actors, at least officially; Blitzstein alone would perform the work at the piano. At 7:30 PM, three actors from the cast began performing impromptu songs from the show to the crowd gathering outside the theater. Ten minutes later, Houseman’s broker arrived with a key to the Venice playhouse, and the audience made their way 21 blocks to Project 891’s temporary home. The cast was invited but not required to attend, and since union rules didn’t prevent audience members from singing along, the actors performed their roles from seats in the house. The show played to capacity crowds for two weeks. Then Welles and Houseman got fired by the FTP, and Project 891 vanished forever.

The Cradle fiasco brings together many of the most volatile strains in early-20th-century American history, coming at a time when socialism seemed a viable alternative and when Broadway was becoming one of the most important platforms for social protest (four of Clifford Odets’s plays had opened there two years earlier). Should union artists defy their own collective bargaining agreements to perform a show about the necessity of collective bargaining agreements? How can an administration committed to social welfare, and harshly critical of state censorship in threatening European dictatorships, suddenly fire artists in order to squelch dissent?

An astute playwright might have a field day with such issues. But Jason Sherman, one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights, doesn’t. He spends most of his attenuated two-act It’s All True avoiding the political and social implications of his historical material. Rather than dramatizing the situation’s high-stakes political brinkmanship, he paints labor politics in broad, indistinct strokes, focusing instead on his characters’ personal crises. Welles is a megalomaniac who drives actors crazy and can’t express any affection for his long-suffering wife. Houseman is a failed grain merchant trying to gain credibility as an artist. Blitzstein is a self-loathing homosexual haunted by the ghost of his former wife, Eva, who died of breast cancer the year before. The only question for most of the first act is whether this collection of wounded titanic egos will get along well enough to create a decent piece of theater. Given the scope of the political and social issues outside their rehearsal space, the only answer is: Who cares?

More problematic, Sherman is so intent on depicting each and every character quirk and dilemma that none is developed satisfactorily. Blitzstein’s relationship with Eva is presented in a single montagelike scene, and in her five minutes onstage she comes across as a cliched, faux bohemian hack novelist. This makes Blitzstein’s crippling obsession with her inexplicable, an obsession Sherman ham-handedly dramatizes by having Eva’s ghost appear at random moments to stare at Blitzstein with a gaze that communicates little.

Given the material, director Louis Contey and his six cast members create a surprisingly satisfying evening of theater. Contey starts out on the wrong foot, however, by playing the first scene–when word of the FTP shutdown reaches Project 891–as screwball comedy. It takes the better part of the first act for the actors to rid themselves of a sense of superficial stylization and settle into genuine relationships with one another. Once they do, they almost provide enough nuance to make one forget the evening’s wasted potential. Nigel Patterson is the epitome of the repressed British gentleman as Houseman, intent on pleasing everyone around him while keeping track of every petty slight he receives. Brian McCaskill may lack Welles’s commanding presence, but he makes emotional sense of his character’s contradictory nature: he’s equally impressed and disgusted with himself. As Blitzstein, the least developed of the three leads, Matthew Krause performs with the kind of headstrong naivete that makes an ideologue endearing.

The evening’s most sophisticated performance comes from Paula Stevens as the leading lady of The Cradle Will Rock, Olive Stanton. Playing a two-bit amateur hired because she was the “least worst” of all the FTP candidates, Stevens not only pulls off acting like a lousy actor, she also gives subtle, honest shadings to the character’s two dilemmas: floundering before tyrannical boy-genius director Welles and diving into a self-destructive affair with her leading man.

As an adjunct to It’s All True, Timeline is presenting staged readings of Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock on Sunday evenings. Here an astute playwright shows how it’s done, creating human drama without forsaking world politics.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.