By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 3 in the series)
May 24, 2020: This series aims to offer a new column every four or five days, describing shows that opened in New York on a particular calendar day between June 1920 and the end of May 1950. As a result, the days selected are more or less random and may not always have been the most theatrically productive. Late spring was not a particularly active time, as witness the opening of only around 19 shows on either May 24 or May 25, combined, during all of those 30 years. Today, we’ll go with May 24. Since the overall total is small, what follows ignores my original intention to cover only a single decade in an entry and will instead cover two, with some notes on the third.
The list includes both revivals and new shows, the former surely being better known to buffs than to the average theatre fan. They premieres are are Sun Up (1923), A Thousand Summers (1932), Money Mad (1937), and Russian Bank (1940). The revivals (loosely defined) are The Cricket on the Hearth (1925), Uncle Vanya (1929). Not the most impressive list but still able to offer a glimpse of what theatregoers were seeing back in the day.
May 24 in the 1940s, which we’ll skip, brought only Sing before Breakfast (1941), a “tasteless” Off-Broadway farce; Claudia (1942), a successful return engagement (269 performances) at the St. James Theatre of Rose Franken’s much-liked comedy of the year before, starring Dorothy McGuire; a failed musical at the Broadway Theatre called Memphis Bound! (1945), inspired by H.M.S. Pinafore and set on a Mississippi show boat with a cast of black entertainers; and a very minor revival of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1945) at the Fort Washington Branch of the New York Public Library by a group that had done a different translation a year earlier at another library branch.
As reported above, the first 1920s work on May 24 was Sun Up, by North Carolinian Lulu Vollmer. Forgotten as it now may be, it was a critical and popular hit. Directed at Off Broadway’s once-fabled Provincetown Playhouse, by Henry Stillman and Benjamin Kaiser, the drama had a substantial 361-performance run. It was even chosen by Burns Mantle as one his Ten Best of the year.
Set in the North Carolina mountains, the play received a distinguished characterization of its leading role from Lucille La Verne. It demonstrated “a playwriting talent that, undeniably crude and uncertain,” was nonetheless greatly promising, according to the Times. Sun Up explored the numerous byways of mountain lore and rarely stayed on a straight dramatic track. Heywood Broun found it “a play rich in observation of native American life” destroyed by “a third act more villainously inept than can well be imagined.”
Written in two weeks, it took Vollmer half a decade to get it produced. In the fall, it moved to the Lenox Hill Theatre, Off Broadway at Seventy-Eighth Street and then, finally, made it to Broadway at the intimate Princess Theatre. Vollmer’s most successful work, its profits of over $40,000 were contributed by the playwright for the education of North Carolina’s mountain folk.
Sun Up takes place in 1917 when a naïve young mountaineer (Alan Birmingham) is drafted and goes to war in France thinking he’s off to fight the Yankees in the North. His law-hating mother (La Verne) would have had him stay at home and attend the family still. Six months later, a deserter (Eliot Cabot) is hidden out from the sheriff (France Bendtsen) by the mother and her daughter-in-law (Anne Elstner). News arrives that the son has been killed; it soon transpires that the deserter, who has spoken of patriotism to the mother, is the son of the revenue agent who killed her husband. The mystic sounds of music conveying the message of love and patriotism come to her from her dead son and prevent her from killing the deserter, whom she helps to escape.
Mantle, uncharacteristically, placed Sun Up among the best of 1923-1924, rather than the season in which it opened, because—coming so late in the spring—it had arrived after the pertinent volume was in the printer’s hands.
In 1925, The Cricket on the Hearth, adapted from a Charles Dickens 1846 novel and once a staple of 19th-century revivals starring Joseph Jefferson III, was presented in Russian in a version by Boris Suskevitch at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Playhouse. A staple of the Moscow Art Theatre’s repertory, this production featured several professional Russian actors, like Leo Bulgakov, who played Caleb Plummer, and Barbara Bulgakov, who was Mrs. Peerybingle. Stark Young said “the achievement was unequal but always sympathetic and sincere.”
Russian theater was back again in 1929 with the English-language premiere of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, previously seen in its native language when the Moscow Art Theatre introduced it during their acclaimed 1924 visit. Jenny Covan’s adaptation, directed by Harold Winston, was seen at the Morosco Theatre, where it received only two special matinees, with a cast including future movie star Franchot Tone as Astrov, Morris Carnovsky, another soon-to-be major stage artist, as Vanya, Herbert Druce as the professor, Jules Artfield as Telyegin, Rose Keane as Sonya, Marjorie Dalton as Maria, and Ara Gerald as Helena.
It was an adequate if unsteady performance. Brooks Atkinson deemed the first two acts rocky, the last two splendid. He thought Carnovsky was made up to look too much like Shylock but that he gave a “strong, brooding, clear-cut” portrayal. Atkinson’s opinion of Uncle Vanya, now considered a modern masterpiece, was that it “is not one of the finest Chekhov plays.” A full-scale, all-star production came a year later, in 1930, under Jed Harris’s widely appreciated direction.
The first May 24 production of the thirties was A Thousand Summers, a drama by Merrill Rogers, directed by Shepard Traube, which opened at the Selwyn Theatre and had 47 showings. Donald Oenslager did the sets. A vehicle for the 46-year-old star Jane Cowl, it was about an older woman in love with a younger man.
Cowl played Sheila Pennington, the divorced, fast-living, but kind and dignified 36-year-old mistress of a married man (Osgood Perkins) vacationing at a British lake resort. She falls in love, though, with 21-year-old American art student Neil Barton (Franchot Tone), traveling with his aunt (Josephine Hull) and uncle (Thomas Findlay). She promises to observe the proprieties but, when she rejects his advances, he turns for comfort to a chambermaid (Mary Newnham Davis), leading to his disillusionment. He leaves to pursue his studies in Paris, Sheila impulsively following after.
Brooks Atkinson considered the well-acted work a touching portrait of youthful innocence learning its lesson, but the play was nonetheless “neither . . . remarkably expert . . . nor [was its thesis] original. . . .”
Money Mad was first called Bet Your Life when it opened at the John Golden Theatre on April 5, 1937, but its name was changed when the first version flopped after eight performances and it was revised for the May 24 showing, a month and a half later. Its chief claim to fame was coauthor Willie Howard, a renowned vaudevillian. Despite a new cast and director, this farce about a gambler who wins $150,000 on the Irish Sweepstakes only to see his family blow the winnings in no time, remained a total waste (Howard had disassociated himself from it). It vanished after a single showing at the Forty-Ninth Street Theatre.
Not much better was Russian Bank (those Russians again!), at the St. James, coauthored by internationally renowned ex-pat director Theodore Komisarjevsky and Stuart Mims, with the former directing. Russian Bank was a comic turkey that the critics gobbled up and spat out quickly.
Its “feeble and wandering story” (John Anderson) begins in St. Petersburg just prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution and deals with an opera star, Natasha (Josephine Houston), mistress of a grand duke (Tonio Selwart), who shifts her attention to a Bolshevist commissar (James Rennie) to protect the nobleman from liquidation. Her money is seized, she flees to America—like her peers—and, in 1933, meets the duke again—he’s now a chauffeur—at the home of a Long Island matron (Effie Shannon). However, it’s the commissar who now possesses her love.
Popular song writer Irving Caesar provided a couple of songs for the star to sing, one of them called “Love Is a Cheat.”
See you on May 29th #4 in the Series, On This Day In New York Theater.