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The Poor of New York: Old-Fashioned Melodrama New Again

Chris Winfield and Trisha Hershberger (Photo: Sherry Netherland)

Chris Winfield and Trisha Hershberger (Photo: Sherry Netherland)

Serious theatregoers have a week left to go to NoHo to see one of the most unique stage offerings currently on the L.A. boards, the Group Repertory Theatre’s revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1857 The Poor of New York. Our economy recently underwent a series of disasters still vexing us, but due to the cyclical nature of capitalism this is nothing new; periodic crises will always be among us as long as there capitalists ride in the saddle. But the Irish playwright’s work starts during the Panic of 1837, which Group Rep’s Co-Artistic Director Larry Eisenberg described in an interview as America’s “first economic collapse, because of greed on Wall Street… Corruption is central to this… Thus this play seemed very relevant.”

Indeed, with its depictions of unemployment, eviction, foreclosure, begging, crime, suicide and other acts of desperation caused by destitution, Poor has a ripped from the headlines quality, although it’s more than 150 years old. Stylistically, however, Boucicault’s melodrama is extremely – well – melodramatic, and this confronted Eisenberg, who directed and co-starred (as the swindled Captain Fairweather), with challenges regarding technique.

Juliana Olinka and Kate O'Toole (Photo: Henry Holden)

Juliana Olinka and Kate O'Toole (Photo: Henry Holden)

Poor may have been a colossal Broadway hit in 1857, but “this kind of play has never been done before [for contemporary audiences] and the [modern] sensibility is different now,” Eisenberg explained. “Comedic approaches are now taken to present melodrama. But like [the anti-slavery] Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Poor of New York dealt with injustice. But Uncle Tom can’t be performed [Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was frequently dramatized] anymore. However, instead of poking fun [at the melodramatic form], I wanted to take a serious look.”

To do this, Eisenberg creatively borrowed from silent film conventions, and there is actually a screen onstage at the Lonny Chapman Theatre with subtitles and some imagery projected onto it. The production’s press notes state that “melodramas… were ferocious, powerful serious enactments of strong human emotion and heartfelt urgency. They were the source of classic silent films like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, F.W. Murnau’s Faust, and Orphans of the Storm by D.W. Griffith.” The production’s props, sets and costumes bestow a period ambiance, as does recorded, old-fashioned music. Footlights mounted downstage enhance the sense of a theatre-going experience at a mid-19th century Broadway thee-a-tuh.

All of these devices cleverly heighten what playwright Bertolt Brecht called “alienation” techniques that serve to remind spectators via an approach that distances them from the action that they are not watching reality but rather a staged presentation of an approximation of real life. The goal of Brecht – and here, of Eisenberg and the Group Rep – is to prod auds to think about what they’re watching, instead of merely being emotionally engaged with the story and characters, so they can learn something from the Lehrstücke, or teaching play.

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Alex Parker and Kate O'Toole (Photo: Henry Holden)

Alex Parker and Kate O'Toole (Photo: Henry Holden)

Without going into details about Poor’s plot – find out for yourself, dear reader – following the 19th century financial disasters a “special service to take on Wall Street savagery” is established and a banker is actually handcuffed onstage. Considering that today not a single one of the fiscal fiascoes has been charged with, let alone convicted, for committing the economic crimes that plunged America (and much of the world) into a depression in 2008, this is the stuff that socialist dreams are made of.

Eisenberg deftly directs the ensemble cast. As the cigar chomping, aptly named Badger, Van Boudreaux strikes the right melodramatic notes. Portraying the devious banker Gideon Bloodgood, Chris Winfield is in the mustache twirling, villainous tradition of bad guys in the Snidely Whiplash mode who used to declare: “Out! Out into the storm! And never darken my doorstep again!” Kate O’Toole is winsome as the love interest Lucy Fairweather, while Trisha Hershberger is trashy as the spoiled bourgeois bitch Alida Bloodgood, who thinks everyone and everything is for sale. It’s good fun watching the evildoers get their comeuppance, with creaky onstage pre-CGI special effects adding to the fun.

Although, as this highly recommended play rightfully reminds us, poverty – then and now – is serious business. Greed was not good when perpetrated by Wall Street’s Gordon Gekkos of 1837, or today.

ed rampell

The Poor of New York is being presented by the Group Repertory Theatre at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601 on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. through July 10. For more info: (818)700-4878;

Ed Rampell

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