by Samuel L. Leiter
Although remembered today chiefly for Liliom, which had its Broadway premiere in 1921 and later became the source of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952) was once so popular on these shores that he had nearly a dozen plays on Broadway in the 1920s alone; there was even a musical, The Love Letter (1921), starring Fred and Adele Astaire, based on his The Phantom Rival. Today, apart from Liliom and The Play’s the Thing (1926), his plays are rarely revived.
Happily, the Mint Theater, devoted to the resurrection of deserving but forgotten plays, is giving us a chance to view Molnár’s Fashions for Men (Úri divat) which premiered in Budapest in 1917 and came to the Great White Way in 1922, where it ran for 89 performances. (A silent film version called Fine Clothes appeared in 1925.) Unhappily, as that low number suggests, it may not be the best choice to show off all that Molnár’s cracked up to be. Some contemporary critics, like Kenneth Macgowan, called it “a novel combination of continental sophistication and sentimental comedy, deft and amusing,” but others sided with Ludwig Lewisohn, who derided “its brittleness and inner factitiousness.”
Fashions for Men—in a nicely revised version of Benjamin Glazer’s 1922 translation by Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, with assistance from Agnes Niemitz and Gábor Lukin—focuses on the tribulations of a saintly Budapest haberdashery store owner named Peter Juhasz (Joe Delafield). Peter’s the kind of easy mark who believes any sob story, and who lets customers extend their credit ad infinitum. In Act One, Peter’s wife, Adele (Annie Purcell), has fallen in love with the conniving salesman Oscar (John Tufts), to whom she has given all the money Peter entrusted her with over three years, so Oscar can go into business in Berlin. Despite the divorce and bankruptcy all this entails, Peter is totally forgiving.
All the while, the various machinations are observed by the old opera-loving salesman, Philip (Jeremy Lawrence), whose reactions serve as a sort of counterbalance to Peter’s overly charitable nature. Molnár, however, who might have made him something of a raisonneur, gives him few opportunities to do more than make cynical facial expressions at the goings-on.
In Act Two, with his shop placed in the hands of a receiver until he’s able to pay off his debts, Peter and his beautiful cashier, Paula (Rachel Napolean, who vaguely resembles Michelle Dockery—Lady Mary—of “Downton Abbey”), take employment in the castle of the wealthy, middle-aged Count (Kurt Rhoads), a generous soul who admires Peter’s humanity and makes him general manager of his cheese-making business; his prime objective, though, is Paula’s seduction. The cashier, for her part, is not unwilling, since her goal is to cash in on the Count’s sexual interest. Romantic complications ensue between Paula and Peter, but, eventually, the Count manages to get rid of Peter by reestablishing him in his Budapest shop.
In Act Three, we’re back in the now flourishing shop, where we learn what’s happened to Adele and Oscar. Soon, Paula—dressed to the nines—arrives, and, after a rather poorly developed reversal on her part, all comes to a foregone conclusion.
Largely because of the charmingly detailed art noveau-style shop designed by Daniel Zimmerman, chockfull of male and female clothing and accessories, and the period costumes designed by Martha Hally, the play emits a whiff of the Budapestian charm associated with The Shop around the Corner (based on a play by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo), the 1940 film starring James Stewart. Disappointingly, though, director Davis McCallum is unable to unify the two-hour and twenty-minute play’s disconcerting stylistic problems, which shift from quiet realism, to broad farce, to screwball sex comedy, and back to realism.
There are also serious issues of plausibility, especially in the depiction of Peter, whose character split the play’s original critics into pro and con, just as it’s doing today. I’m with the cons, since the guy’s goodliness is so extreme—especially in a ridiculously broad scene when he’s unable to fire a blatantly dishonest employee—that he seems a total fool. Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to be an idiot about it. Perhaps what’s missing is a performance capable of making Peter believable. Joe Delafield, who seems too young for the role, brings little color or nuance to Peter, making his exaggerations that much more tangible. Calling Jimmy Stewart! Most of the other actors are unable to inhabit Molnar’s world with the proper style and conviction (Rhoads, Lawrence, and, occasionally, the thin-voiced Napolean, are exceptions). The result is simply not up to the best of the Mint’s previous work (as, for example, McCallum’s production last season of London Wall).
Despite my cavils, there’s nonetheless something stimulating about seeing this old play put back on the boards. It has a generally engaging plot, its characters and their intentions are clear and often amusing, and it reminds us of a bygone time and place. Its dramaturgy may no longer be in fashion, but Fashion for Men is still worth looking at.
Fashions for Men
311 W. 43rd Street, NYC
Through March 29
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).