By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 22 in the series)
February 12, 2020: For today’s installment of On This Day in New York Theater we look at five shows that opened on February 12 in the 1940s. The one hit was Claudia (1941), produced early in the year that ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor. A year later came Heart of a City (1942), which opened two months after we entered World War II, and dealt with a situation directly inspired by the conflict, although in England, not the U.S. The only other offerings on this date during the decade were 1945’s The Stranger,a mystery set in Victorian England; a 1947 revival of 1925’s Pulitzer-winning Craig’s Wife; and a 1948 religious drama, Lady of Fatima.
Despite some definite critical reservations, Claudia (Booth Theatre, 722), written and directed by widely read author Rose Franken, based on a series of her short stories, was chosen as one of the season’s ten best plays. Franken, unrepresented on Broadway since 1932’s hit Another Language, returned with a play about the title character (Dorothy McGuire), a comically naïve young woman. She’s torn between her feelings for David Naughton (Donald Cook), her architect husband of one year, and her mother, Mrs. Brown (Frances Starr), on whom she’s uncomfortably dependent.
Set in a lovely, remodeled Connecticut farmhouse (designed by Donald Oenslager), Claudia charts the charmingly unself-conscious child-bride’s gradual maturation over a period of twenty-four hours. She’s immature enough to listen in on the party line, a habit that rebounds when she overhears her mother tell David that she—the mother—has a fatal illness. The developments that stem from this revelation, combined with Claudia’s almost simultaneous discovery of her pregnancy, lead to her new awakening as a mature woman.
A minor issue along the way is incited when, convinced she has no sex appeal for her husband, Claudia innocently allows a rakish British neighbor, Jerry Seymour (John Williams), to kiss her. David, though, turns out to be quite understanding about it all. There’s also a subplot concerning a married couple (Frank Tweddell and Adrienne Gessner), employed by the Naughtons as servants. David learns that the husband served time for forgery, although it turns out that the crime was actually committed by the man’s son.
Claudia herself was an excellent example of character drawing, but Franken’s attempt to mingle sentimentality and pathos didn’t please everyone. Brooks Atkinson noted, “In spite of the many qualities that skip lightly through the pattern of Claudia, the emotional sequences are a bit hard to take.” Willela Waldorf was really turned off: “Mrs. Franken’s play struck us as an artificial and strangely unmoving affair from beginning to end.” More approving was Rosamond Gilder, who commented on how effectively the small cast, one-set, non-socially significant play provided human entertainment: “So deeply has Miss Franken cut into the hearts of these people that their personalities and the crucial events of their two days take on the importance and immediacy of things lived. They become part of experience.”
Dorothy McGuire’s principal earlier role was as Martha Scott’s successor as Emily in Our Town. Claudia was her ticket to stardom (she later played the part in the movie version). “Her youth, her childlike, sensitive face with its upturned nose, and bombé forehead, her solid, young figure, are all assets,” wrote Gilder. “As an actress she has a natural ability to convey the darting, discontinuous, illogically logical process of Claudia’s thought through the transparent mask of her face. She has also the gift of relaxation; she can be present on the stage without restlessness or fidgeting.”
Among the other fine performances, that of veteran Frances Starr was admired as one of the best. The colorful minor role of an opera singer who wants to buy the Naughton home was taken by Olga Baclanova.
Claudia ran until March 1942, toured for ten weeks, and reopened on 5/24/42, bringing the total number of performances to 722, a robust figure in those days. The return engagement was at the St. James Theatre, with the original cast in place, something that would rarely happen today. Because the sets hadn’t yet arrived from Boston, producer John Golden presented a speech to the packed house, using a flashlight he said was necessary because of the “dimout” (WW II was on by now). The production was offered at low prices ranging from a quarter (at matinees) to $1.65 at a time when $3.30 was the average top. He got a big hand for declaring that the theatre would come back to life if others also produced shows at low admission prices. Golden added that he didn’t expect to make a profit, but if he did he’d donate it to a war charity.
February 12, 1942, gave Broadway Lesley Storm’s Heart of a City (Henry Miller’s Theatre, 28), a sentimental play set in England, which had been at war since 1939. The action takes place at London’s Windmill Theatre near Piccadilly Circus, famed for having continued to perform its “Revudeville” shows throughout the Blitz, upholding the old tradition that “the show must go on.” Offering work for thirty-one mostly British actors, it provided a tingling blend of danger and frivolousness with its picture of the showgirls and theatre workers gallantly laughing in the face of death as they go about their business of providing entertainment despite the sounds of destruction whizzing by outside.
Storm had been a regular backstage visitor at the Windmill, and wrote from her personal experience. Rosamond Gilder, moved, nevertheless reported, “As a play it is disjointed and at times surprisingly jejune, dropping to pieces at every exit and resuming its course with difficulty, offering material for a play in locale and external events rather than in the inner substance of drama.”
Cast members playing leading ladies, RAF pilots, boozing songwriters, and the like included Beverly Roberts, Richard Ainley, Lloyd Gough, and, in her American debut, England’s Gertrude Musgrove.
Broadway had to wait three years before another February 12 opening, this one called The Stranger (Playhouse, 16), by South Africa’s Leslie Reade, directed by Shepard Traube, with sets and lighting by Boris Aronson. Traube had hit it big with his production of the Victorian psychological thriller, Angel Street (called Gaslight in its classic film version), but this effort, also taking place during the Victorian era, was labeled by George Freedley “a dull and obvious melodrama with red herrings a dime a dozen.”
Set entirely in the meeting room of the International Educational Club in a poor section of London in 1888, it depicts political radicals, such as the anarchist Napoleon Micalieff (Eugene Sigaloff) and the expatriate Frenchman Jean Prunier (Alfred Hesse). A Jack the Ripper-like series of killings of local tarts gets the plot rolling. Into the club comes a young, piano-playing, Jewish shoemaker named David Mendelsohn (Eduard Franz) whose suspicious behavior raises members’ eyebrows. He even carries a small black bag and large knife and wears a leather apron like those associated with the killer.
A constable (Stanley Bell) asking questions provokes an accusation against the cobbler. As the evidence mounts and David behaves with supreme egotism, it becomes ever more certain that he’s the guilty one. However, a young seamstress named Christina (Perry Wilson) believes him to be innocent. Finally, David is found guiltless and the real culprit (Morton L. Stevens) is revealed.
Critics noted that the offstage murders are of people unimportant to the plot, making it hard to care about them. Moreover, the actual villain turns out to be someone who barely figures in the action. Ward Morehouse observed that The Stranger “is a listless and dawdling play, badly constructed and ineptly written.”
A far more distinctive play arrived on February 12, 1947, but it was a revival. This was distinguished playwright George Kelly’s Craig’s Wife (Playhouse, 69), a 1925 success that won the Pulitzer Prize and eventually was made into three movies starring, respectively, Irene Rich (1928), Rosalind Russell (1936), and Joan Crawford (1950). It was renowned for its surgical examination of a neurotic woman driven by the need for material security.
The Kelly-directed 1947 revival, its first locally, revealed the work to still be stageworthy, if not entirely. Louis Kronenberger declared, “It still interests and at times even fascinates you,” but he felt that “the play does not go deep enough into the lady, or far enough out into life.” Kelly’s drama, he concluded, was “not so much artificial as simply artless.” Brooks Atkinson thought it dated, but Ward Morehouse considered it “a resolute and honest drama.”
In the role of the archetypically hateful Harriet Craig, who dominates her husband (Philip Ober) as a way of gaining her longed-for security, Judith Evelyn gave an excellent performance despite being forced by Kelly’s much-criticized speeding train direction to rapidly rattle off her lines. “Her Harriet Craig,” wrote John Mason Brown, “is more exotic than was Miss [Chrystal] Herne’s. . . . She is sinister and slightly ghoulish, in addition to being hard. . . . Miss Evelyn plays with such driving intensity, and so much resourcefulness, that she creates a memory of her own.”
Closing out this survey of February 12 plays of the 1940s is Urban Nagle’s Lady of Fatima (Blackfriars’ Playhouse, 41), produced by the semipro Blackfriars’ Guild, an Off-Broadway Catholic organization with a long record of religiously oriented plays. This was a Lenten drama—by a priest—about the miraculous 1917 appearance of the Lady of the Rosary to a group of children in Fatima, Portugal. The show sold out in advance of its six-week run.
Reminiscent of The Song of Bernadette, the play concerns the vision’s appearance to two girls, Jacinta (Naomi Mitty) and Lucia (Anna Stubits), and a boy, Francisco (Edward Villella, the future ballet star), while minding their sheep. They face the disbelief of parents, villagers, clergy, and the anticlerical government. Frightening inquisitions are conduced, the kids are put in jail, and there’s even a threat to boil them in oil. Proof that they’re not lying comes when the vision reappears in a cavern. After two of the children die in an epidemic, as foretold by the Lady, the survivor, Lucia, becomes a nun devoted to effecting world peace through spreading the idea of devotion to the rosary.
Certain narrative bridges were staged in the auditorium, making it necessary for the cast to get to and from their places quietly in the dark, leading to much stumbling about. These sequences eventually were dropped and replaced by a commentator who made occasional remarks.
Robert Coleman thought the play “tells an inspiring story dramatically,” but George Freedley argued that Father Nagle has not been very successful in dramatizing his true religious story because it doesn’t lend itself to theatre satisfactorily.”