Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Poor of New York


The Poor of New York
by Dion Boucicault
Produced by Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre
directed by Tyne Rafaeli

Dion Boucicault (1820 – 1890) was one of the most successful melodramatists, acclaimed in both London and New York. His The Poor of New York opened in our city in 1857. It was one of the first plays of its century to take a stab at social amelioration. It was subsequently produced widely, with the place names (and the title) changed to suit the locale.

All the melodramatic elements are here: the hyperbole; the excess of emotion; the black-and-white moralizing; the narrative complications; the happy ending. Instead of simply reflecting nature, melodramatists wrote for effect.

Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre produced it recently in a large venue off-off-Broadway. Director Tyne Rafaeli assumes the challenges of presenting a bona-fide melodrama with all the excesses of its form. She succeeds wonderfully, using humor selectively to keep the play from being ridiculous to our taste.

The play is set during the financial panic of 1857. Most of its characters are the destitute exploited by the greedy. Its allusions to the corrupt the financial system and its managers, it goes without saying, are pointedly topical.

The first syllable of the term melodrama implies music, and Rafaeli works in form with an 11-piece ensemble. Music underscores the text selectively. And Jiyoun Chang’s set is marvelous, lugubrious brick buildings that extend on to the balconies around the audience.

Rafaeli and her talented cast take lines that could be ludicrous and manage them without embarrassment. “I may blush from anger,” the bitch cries, “but never from shame!” At another point our dastardly villain threatens “Give it to me or I’ll blow your brains out!” Delicious!

And speaking of our villain, it’s extraordinary fun watching the evil Mr. Bloodgood in his black frock coat and top hat. Christopher Tocco is superb in the role, marvelous, playing it in style or slyly as suits.

At the play’s climax, the long-suffering mother and her daughter attempt suicide by inhaling the fumes of burning charcoal. But it’s their neighbor on the split stage, whom we know intimately, who dies from the fumes. The split stage was this play’s innovation.

Anyway… the playwright has it both ways. The three soon show up again. The neighbor (who is a sous-villain) alludes to the event when he mentions “the day after my suffocation.” Now how is a director to deal with that unspeakable line? Rafaeli and her actor (Brian Hastert) handle it deftly. He turns to the audience on the phrase, and delivers it with humor and an inflectional wink.

Rafaeli plays the piece allegro because she has to, but the production plays a price. As the convoluted plot speeds by, we can scarcely keep up with it.

We admire Boucicault’s social concern, but let’s take a look at a certain speech from the first act:

“The poor – whom do you call the poor? Do you know them? Do you see them? They are more frequently found under a black coat then under a red shirt. The poor man is the clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children. The poor man is the artist who is obliged to pledge the tools of his trade to buy medicines for his sick wife. The lawyer who, craving for employment, buttons up his thin paletot to hide his shirtless breast. These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content – smoking a cigar to disguise their hunger. They drag from their pockets their last quarter, to cast it with studied carelessness to the beggar, whose mattress at home is lined with gold. These are the most miserable of the Poor of New York.”

What drivel this is! First of all, it’s confused, classifying that artist with the clerk. But the point is clear: the impoverished bourgeois suffer more than the underclass. Try as he might, Boucicault couldn’t shake the 19th-century worldview. 

And that beggar with his mattress stuffed with gold! Yipes!

Rafaeli knows this is meant to be the play’s position statement, and very oddly, she takes it seriously, giving the speech a modern tone unseen elsewhere on her stage. 

This production was at any rate a terrific contribution to our theatrical season.