- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

“U.S.A.” is a play without a country, a hectic pastiche of the first two decades of the 20th century that fails to capture America’s conflicted identity or the radical, restless spirit of writer John Dos Passos.

As a novel, “U.S.A.” is a sprawling masterpiece, written in the jittery style of jazz and capturing the enervating tenor of early-century America. Consisting of three works — “The 42nd Parallel,” “1919” and “The Big Money” — Mr. Dos Passos’ 1938 epic portrayed an America unmoored from its founding ideals, festering with corporate greed and materialism, indifferent to its poor and disenfranchised workers.

Mr. Dos Passos’ fiery and immediate trilogy was acclaimed by the likes of Jean Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway. “Wasn’t Dos Passos’ book astonishingly good?” the latter wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, although the Hemingway-Dos Passos friendship would sour after a political dust-up in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Mr. Dos Passos’ prose has fallen out of favor, but in his time he was considered a brilliant writer, important enough to make the cover of Time magazine in 1936.

As a play, “U.S.A.” is a curiosity, intermittently fascinating but more a theatrical experiment than anything else. In 1959, Mr. Dos Passos collaborated with playwright and adaptor Paul Shyre, who later went on to write the Will Rogers one-man show for James Whitmore. Rather than employ a cast of thousands, Mr. Shyre settled on a cast of six to capture both Mr. Dos Passos’ unconventional writing style and the clashing, layered portraits of Americans from 1900 to 1929. Both the book and the play defied convention, interweaving newspaper headlines, snatches of popular songs and biographies of famous figures with the fictionalized lives of ordinary Americans.

In American Century Theater’s production, earnestly staged by Jackie Manger, we get the breadth of U.S. history, but little of its impact and emotion. The whole thing clips along as blandly as a newsreel — and a badly projected one at that, as some of the sound cues and projected slides were delayed, throwing off the rhythms of the actors.

A show containing six actors saddled with portraying three decades of tumultuous social and political change under the constraints of a small budget means much schlepping of wooden cubes around the stage. The cast performs like costumed Teamsters, hauling and restacking those blasted wooden blocks into everything from desks and restaurant tables to oceanfront resorts and wartime Paris until you feel like you’re watching a left-wing version of “Sesame Street” rather than a grown-up play. Do they get paid extra for being both cast and crew?

A larger problem is that the vignettes concerning real-life luminaries Wilbur and Orville Wright, Isadora Duncan, Eugene V. Debs, Henry Ford, and Rudolph Valentino are far more poignant and compelling than the flat fictional characters. Although this device worked to great ironic effect in the novel, in the play you’re left with a stage full of uninteresting people. You really don’t care about the rise of heartless public relations pioneer Ward Moorehouse (Evan Hoffmann) or mousy but dedicated secretary Janey (Monalisa Arias), slick corporate toady Dick Savage (Bruce Alan Rauscher) or dilettante socialite Eleanor (Patricia Hurley).

When portraying the historical figures, the cast rises admirably to the occasion, especially Miss Hurley as an incandescently graceful Duncan and Mr. Rauscher’s delicately understated narrative of Valentino’s arc from an object of media frenzy to page 26 of the New York Times.

As is usually the case with American Century productions, it is commendable that they rediscover neglected works. No one is more deserving than Mr. Dos Passos, but this staging of “U.S.A.” fails to convey the nervy style and galloping idealism of this quintessentially American writer.

**

WHAT: “U.S.A.” by John Dos Passos and Paul Shyre

WHERE: American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 15.

TICKETS: $23 to $29

PHONE: 703/553-8782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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