Street Scene by Girl Friday Productions at the Minneapolis Theater Garage

July 7, 2011
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John Middleton, Shelby Flannery, Eric Knutson, Ellen Apel, Pebbles, Sam Landman, Anna Sundberg, Kirby Bennett and Naveh Shavit-Lonstein in Street Scene.

Elmer Rice‘s brilliant Street Scene (beautifully done by Girl Friday Productions, performing at the Minneapolis Theater Garage through July 30) burst onto the Broadway stage in 1929.  Groundbreaking, realistic but not grimly naturalistic, Street Scene explores the textures of life in a lower-class NYC neighborhood during one incident-rich 24 hour period.  Characters struggle with poverty, the vagaries of the English language, the heat (this is a summer-time play), infidelity, childbirth, the gritty city.

The play proceeds slowly.  Act One is long and languid, rich, summery.  Late afternoon becomes evening becomes night.  Cries of pain ring out, as Mrs. Buchanan struggles to birth her new baby.  Many characters assume a simple choric function, commenting on the street life: Mrs. Jones, the consummate gossip-monger; Abraham Kaplan, the aging but still passionate Marxist; Fillipo Fiorentino, with his smiling faith in the redemptive power of music.

A story emerges: Mrs. Maurrant is having a sordid affair.  Frank, her miserly and abusive husband, suspects.  Their daughter, Rose, is torn between her horny but upwardly mobile boss, Harry Easter, and Sam Kaplan, the sweetly idealistic boy next door.  When, in Act Two, the play explodes with melodrama, the effect is exciting and pitch-perfect.  The final scene, between Rose and Sam plays out perfectly and the final image cements the play.

Hope, a love of life, and faith in the American dream, pervade Street Scene.  A scene early on, in which the sweating characters eat tiny ice cream cones, bent over to prevent wasteful dripping, smiling with pleasure, typifies this optimism.

Also, the play also presents us with one of the first (and best) instances of the “rose in Spanish Harlem” theme, in which an idealistic young man (Sam) manages, despite the heat and the big city clatter, to hold on to intensely felt poetry.  This material has been mined by many writers – Clifford Odets, Herb Gardner, many others – and continues to be developed to this day.

Street Scene is a genuine classic.  It formed the basis for a very good (if stagy) 1931 film adaptation and it became an opera (by the great Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes) in 1946.  It won a Pulitzer and has become a standard text in college surveys of the drama.

But the play is rarely produced.  Why?  Because it has 50+ characters (depending on how many passers-by, students, etc, you care to cast).  So huge kudos are due to Girl Friday Productions (in their first show in almost 2 years) and to director Craig Johnson for giving us a solid, intelligent and focused production of this neglected classic.

This is a play of vignettes, and Johnson teases out lovely performances from everyone.  I don’t have space here to praise the entire praiseworthy cast but I do have to single out: Sam Landman, for his delightful life-affirming Filippo; the focused intensity of John Middleton; Anna Sundberg‘s luminous work as Rose; Logan Verdoorn, who does Sam with a goofy and winning edge; Kirby Bennett (also the producer) as the tragic Anna Maurrant; Ellen Apel, with her brilliant gossip-monger strut; Eric Knutson as the smarmy Harry Easter; Bob Malos as the scary Maurrant.  The designers (led by Joel Sass) do first rate work.

Definitely recommended: you may not get another chance to see such a good production of this treasure.

For more information about John Olive please visit his website.

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