By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 11 in the series)
July 27, 2020: Again, few midsummer days in the three decades comprised by this column offered more than a handful of openings. For late July, we’ll have to go with the 27th, despite its output of a mere five shows in thirty years. And, of those five—The Teaser, The Morning After, a double bill of “Trial by Jury” and H.M.S. Pinafore, The Bohemian Girl, and Too Many Thumbs—three were new and two were revivals. Assuming most readers are familiar with at least one of these offerings, how many others have you even heard of?
The Teaser (Playhouse Theatre, 29), a 1921 play by Martha M. Stanley and Adelaide Matthews, directed by John Cromwell, was a well-liked comedy that faded in a month, probably because of the sultry weather. It’s about the complications that ensue when pretty 16-year-old flirt Annie (Faire Binney), a country lass, arrives at her widowed aunt’s (Jane Grey) home in the city and soon sends the aunt’s men friends spinning by her seductive ambience. In the end, she relieves the pressure by marrying the traveling salesman (Bruce Elmore) she met on the train to her aunt’s home.
Uneven as it was, the play was considered amusing and well produced. Although the season was still very young, the Times called it “by long odds the best play of the season.”
The sole other show opening on July 27 in the twenties was The Morning After (Hudson Theatre, 24), a typical time passer for the dog days of 1925. Thus we find ourselves watching a farce set at a Maine house party with a suitably assorted gang of guests and a stereotyped black servant played, of course, in par-for-the-period blackface by Emma Wise. During the proceedings, the host (A.H. Van Buren) discovers that his valuable gas patent has been filched. Numerous complications arise before the thief is discovered. During those activities, various affairs of the heart blossom, wither, and bloom again, with a happy future in store for several couples.
Nicely played, the piece otherwise had little to offer. The Times said it had “many moments that are dull, some that are mildly amusing and at the best one or two that are genuinely provocative of genuine laughter.”
The thirties witnessed two July 27 openings. The first, in 1931, was a double bill of Gilbert and Sullivan, the brief “Trial by Jury” and the longer H.M.S. Pinafore, or the Lass That Loved a Sailor (Erlanger’s Theatre, 16), during a decade in which the Civic Light Opera Company regularly produced such popular operettas under the direction of Milton Aborn. This pair of musical confections was part of the company’s repertory season, and had some significance in that “Trial by Jury,” the first successful Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, hadn’t been seen in New York since 1915. It also established an often-followed custom of pairing “Trial by Jury” with Pinafore on New York programs, although the coupling was not new elsewhere.
The Aborn “Trial by Jury” made the most of the material’s comic possibilities in burlesquing a courtroom situation while using no spoken dialogue. Frank Moulan—considered New York’s premier Gilbert and Sullivan comedian—was the Learned Judge, Frederick Persson was the Foreman, Howard Marsh was the Defendant, Joseph Macauley was the Counsel, William Danforth was the Usher (as in 1915), and Theo Pennington was the Plaintiff. The bill was repeated on May 8, 1933, during another G&S season.
Exactly a year later, in 1932, the decade’s final July 27 offering opened at the Majestic Theatre, closing 11 days later. It, too, was a revival of a British operetta, this one being 1843’s The Bohemian Girl, book by Alfred Bunn and music by Michael W. Balfe. Not seen locally since 1913, it, too, was directed by Milton Aborn, with choreography by the highly reputed Albertina Rasch. Aborn’s involvement derives from this drab, conventional mounting being part of yet another Gilbert and Sullivan season.
The clumsy book is about a Polish exile (Roy Cropper) who, with his gypsy band, kidnaps a young girl (Ruth Altman) when her father (Allan Waterous) mistreats him. He raises her and eventually wins her heart. Yuck. The sorely dated show was “rather shiftless and shopworn,” grumbled Richard Dana Skinner.
We fly forward to 1949 to close out this weary account with what may be too many words about Too Many Thumbs, a farce by Robert Hivnor at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. (Information about its run is unavailable.) This sporadically amusing play, which satirizes science and theology, is notable mainly for having featured several actors who would become important contributors to American theatre and film. One was Kim Stanley, very early in her career, and apparently unwilling later on to note it in her credits. Others were character actor Nehemiah Persoff and actor-director Gene Saks.
The title refers to the name of a jungle-bred chimpanzee (Persoff), who is brought into a college lab to inspire progress in Psyche (Sadie Long), a Bronx Zoo-born simian. He makes amazing evolutionary progress within a couple of weeks, eventually turning into a normal man called Tom. Tom falls in love with the science prof’s (Dick Robbins) girlfriend, Jennie Macklebee (Stanley), and becomes concerned with equal rights. By the conclusion, Tom, thinking himself God, walks off on his own.
Most of the funny stuff came from the scenes of the monkey’s criticizing human civilization with Psyche or outsmarting a fanatical theology professor (Saks), who can’t bring himself to accept what his eyes see. While occasionally diverting, the overlong play was bogged down in bloated poetic dialogue, and lost its impetus when it moved from comedy to philosophy.
“The fantasy had its uproarious moments,” thought George Currie, “and clever lines were interpolated to keep the action on the move.” An unnamed Variety reviewer said that it “starts off weakly but builds into an amusing and fanciful comedy.” Stanley, said the critic, “has little to do but lend charm to the proceedings.” Richard Watts, Jr., conceded, “Whatever its weaknesses, this is a play that was worth doing. It has the rare gift of freshness and imagination.”
Too Many Thumbs had received earlier stagings at the University of Minnesota and Stevens College.
The search continues for a day to represent our next installment. As here, a glimmering surprise or two may be waiting amid the dross of third-rate shows. Still, I wouldn’t put my money on it.