Tuesday, August 20

Theater Review: “Stage Door”

Traditional theater piece questions gender roles, artistic credibility of film

An actress’s joys are in her pains as she practices her craft. Acting on stage is life ““ acting on film isn’t acting at all. Don’t sell your soul to the motion picture studios.

These are the maxims of “Stage Door,” a play that rallies for the theater and rails against the cinema. There is, however, something peculiar in the Open Fist Theatre Company’s production of a staunchly anti-Hollywood play ““ the fact that the theater is in the heart of Hollywood itself. Far from diminishing the play’s message, this irony reinforces its poignancy.

“Stage Door” is George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1936 play about fledgling actresses’ tumultuous lives as they try to make it big on Broadway, find a break in the movies, or simply get lucky in love. Terry Randall, played by Amanda Weier, is the stagestruck protagonist who tries endlessly in search of an acting job in post-Depression New York City. Terry and a dozen other aspiring actresses board at the Footlights Club, where they experience daily disappointment and occasional tragedy. Yet through perseverance and sisterly devotion, they ultimately find happiness in their lives.

The play is well-written, but wildly dated. The Open Fist Theatre Company stays true to the play as a period piece, which made the production less of an antiquated view of showbiz, and more an astoundingly well-performed critique of the 1930s, as well as the entertainment industry of both then and now.

The almost all-female cast is full of strong, independent women, yet their fates are ultimately in the hands of men. Writers, publicists, producers and directors are the power players to whom the actresses must clamor. Without a man’s stamp of approval, the women cannot progress in their careers. “Stage Door” also adheres to the notion that a woman can only be truly happy if with a man, a theme that leads to a happy but contrived ending.

Some of the play’s best writing is in the attacks on the film industry. When Terry’s friend, Jean, urges her to come to California to sign a film studio contract, Terry asks, “If I go to the coast to make all these movies, will there still be time in between ““ you know ““ to act?” She later asserts that because films are edited and canned, “to be in the movies, you don’t even need to be alive.”

With both examples of the play’s datedness, it is interesting to compare the play’s window into the 1930s to the reality of today. Is the man still the woman’s gate to both success and love, or has the woman ascended to more self-actualized liberation? Are the stage and the silver screen comparable artistic media, or is the seventh art still deemed the theater’s canned doppelganger?

While a review should not be a play-by-play thematic analysis, “Stage Door” is so rich in its depth as a script and so truly represented by the Open Fist Theatre Company, it is difficult not to do so.

It is a splendid show with great actors and actresses. Memorable characters march in and out of the play and bring the audience out into the streets of New York or the sound stages of Los Angeles ““ without ever stepping foot out of the Footlights Club.

Weier, as her character Terry, becomes more powerful, piercing, and beautiful as the show progresses. Her ultimate love interest is theater-buff-turned-film-producer, David Kingsley. Played by Arthur Hanket, Kingsley is a kind and charming leading man, with a presence as commanding as Cary Grant’s.

The team of Michelle Lema and Laetitia Leon as Big Mary and Little Mary, respectively, is the greatest form of comic relief in the play; if not one of the best ever written for the stage in the 20th century. Lema and Leon effortlessly lighten the play’s sometimes somber mood, but are never hammy or slapstick.

The set design, sound engineering and lighting are top-notch. The play’s technical aspects pay full attention to the script’s nuances as well as take full advantage of the playhouse’s resources and large performance space.

“Stage Door” is a door to another age, especially for a contemporary Hollywood crowd. Technically, the play is tightly constructed: The actors, technicians and director of 2010 take the great work of playwrights of 1936 to create one of the most worthwhile tickets in town.

E-mail Boden at [email protected]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.