Monday, November 14, 2022

Political Theatre for Pre-Programmed Audiences: Parade and Straight Line Crazy

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt in Parade at New York City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1998 musical Parade, written by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics), dramatizes the notorious case of Leo Frank, who was framed for the 1913 rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old who worked in the factory he superintended in Marietta, Georgia. Frank was a Brooklyn Jew who went South to marry and manage his father-in-law’s business. His trial, manipulated by anti-Semitic forces, ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence that was commuted to life in prison by the governor, John Slaton, in view of evidence that the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, had coaxed witnesses to lie on the stand. But Frank didn’t live to see that new evidence generate a new trial – he was lynched in 1915. Historical scholarship points to Jim Conley, a Black janitor in the factory who provided the most damning testimony against Frank, as the likely killer.  The Frank case had the ironic double effect of reanimating the KKK in Georgia and giving birth to the Anti-Defamation League. (And Dorsey followed Slaton straight into the Governor’s mansion.)

Parade, which was revived in the Encores! series at City Center over the first weekend of November, begins with an ensemble number called “The Old Red Hills of Home” that is both a brilliant coup de théâtre and a stunningly compact historical and political statement. It traces a line from the Civil War to the insulated, powder-keg atmosphere in the pre-World War I South that prepared the way for Frank’s tragedy. The song is about the Dixie spirit that sent young Southerners to war in 1861 and produced the romanticized image of crucified white warriors whose defeat was reborn, like a phoenix, as a legacy; and about the transformation of Southern values into a glorification, suffused with sentimentality, of white Christian men as symbols of a new Crusades and white Christian women as icons of purity. What happens in the first act of the musical is that Frank’s interrogation by the police permits Dorsey and the bigoted magazine publisher Tom Watson to scapegoat a convenient Jew. Uhry, whose favorite focus has always been the Jews of Atlanta (he wrote Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo), orchestrates the first half of the musical drama with tremendous skill, and Brown, whose first Broadway show Parade was, has never written another score with the power and melodic range of this one. It’s a precise, razor-wielding political protest play, superficially in the mode of Brechtian morality plays called Lehrstücke, and you can hear that Brown’s model was Brecht’s great collaborator Kurt Weill.

The difference is that Brecht’s Lehrstücke are undergirded with irony: you think they’re leading you in one direction and then you find that your assumptions have taken you down the garden path into a moral swamp. Parade is no more than what it seems to be, and political protest plays are by their nature imaginatively limited. The anti-Semites in the musical are as Satanic as they believe Frank and his fellow Jews to be. The Encores! production, tautly and sometimes ingeniously directed by Michael Arden (the talented man behind the Deaf West Theatre’s reconceived Spring Awakening and Jefferson Mays’s one-man Christmas Carol), is extremely well acted, but there’s no way for Paul Alexander Nolan to push the role of Dorsey beyond its resolute two dimensions, and Manoel Feliciano (as Watson) and John Dossett (as Judge Roan, whom the second act implicates in Frank’s framing) are mired even more firmly in the dramaturgy. And once the verdict is called, just before intermission, the show’s dramatic purpose has been met. Obviously the play has to take us all the way to the lynching, but act two presents nothing new except for the way that Lucille Frank’s energetic fight for her husband revivifies their marriage – an idea that does not bring out the best in either Uhry or Brown. Though Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt as Leo and especially Micaela Diamond as Lucille give beautiful performances, their second-act scenes and songs – especially “This Is Not Over Yet” – seem to belong to another musical entirely.

The other fine actor who gets sidelined is Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip in the exuberant 2014 revival of On the Town) as the muckraking reporter Britt Craig. I hated his number, “Real Big News,” though mostly because of Cree Grant’s choreography, which comments throughout the show on the material in glaring, showboating ways that no one above the age of an undergraduate should be able to get away with. Most of the cast comes through just fine, especially Erin Rose Doyle as Mary Phagan, Eddie Cooper as the factory employee who finds the body, Sean Allan Krill as Governor Slaton, Alex Joseph Grayson as Jim Conley and, a standout, Gaten Matarazzo (from the TV series Stranger Things) as Frankie Epps, whose unrequited crush on Mary whips him into dreams of revenge against the Jew he’s sure is responsible for snuffing out her young life.

Danny Webb and Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The Sunday matinee crowd at Parade was with it all the way; they were with it, apparently, before they even walked into the theatre. They cheered everyone who appeared on stage, and they cheered everyone again at the start of act two, which was a new one on me. It was more like being at a boxing match than a Manhattan playhouse. Brown himself conducted the orchestra, and during the curtain call the hefty cast of twenty-seven turned up toward him and stamped their feet. Brown wrote a terrific score, but the reception he got wasn’t so much for a composer as for a political hero. Attending the theatre has become a sign of blue-state solidarity, which makes me nervous, lifelong liberal though I am. The day before I’d seen David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy, an awful play about Robert Moses, the urban planner who held the positions of New York City Parks Commissioner and Chairman of Long Island State Park Commission and whose radical projects determined the infrastructure of greater New York from the middle of the last century. Robert Caro’s 1975 biography The Power Broker takes nearly twelve hundred pages to deliver a complex portrait of Moses, but Hare does it in two and a half hours. He doesn’t even need that long, really, since all it amounts to is that Moses is a cold, callous bastard with a loud, bombastic voice who only cares about white people. Ralph Fiennes, a magnificent actor, is terrible in the part, but it’s hardly his fault, except that he should have known better than to take it on after reading Hare’s script. The staging by Nicholas Hytner, one of my favorite directors, and Jamie Armitage, who helmed the musical Six – another London import – consists of actors pacing around the thrust stage at The Shed, possibly to give the illusion of some kind of forward movement, but their effort is belied by the dialogue, which mostly consists of two pairs of actors, Fiennes and Danny Webb as Governor Al Smith in the first act, Fiennes and Judith Roddy as Moses’ assistant Finnuala Connell in the second, orating at each other. All the audience needed to know, though, was which side the play was on. When my friend and I failed to leap to our feet during the bows, the woman next to him stared at him as if he was a redneck infiltrator. More striking, though, was the opening. The actress Helen Schlesinger, as Moses’ most famous opponent, the journalist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, marched downstage and introduced her character to the audience, and they went hog-wild. In the musical Show Boat a backwoodsman, never having been to a theatre before, levels his shotgun at the villain in the melodrama because he doesn’t recognize that he’s an actor. Is that what audiences have turned into in 2022?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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