All Power to the People

“Get down on your knees to remember what it’s like when the people
with power
literally loom over you.” 
Roald Dahl

The suggestion that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Price, now playing on Broadway, are comparable might leave the impression that I am delusional. Or painfully simplistic. And I hardly expect that anyone will run out to see the two back-to-back as I did last week. But I did, and I am compelled to point out the commonalities. And I’m not stretching.

Obviously, the plays represent vastly differing worlds. Charlie is a musical based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl. It takes place on the streets of London and in a fantastical candy factory. The Price is a drama, written by the iconic American tragedian Arthur Miller. This one is set in a prewar New York apartment, about to be torn down. But they were written by left-leaning writers deep in the throes disillusionment. Each features a protagonist who has been victimized by the vagaries of economics. Both reflect a kind of nostalgia for a humanity that is all too rare in our greed-driven society.

Arthur Miller’s The Price, on Broadway, starring (l to r) Jessica Hecht, Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, and Danny DeVito.  Photo courtesy of The Roundabout Theatr.

What began my thinking process was the set of the current production of The Price, directed by Terry Kinney. In this iteration, designer Derek McLane has taken Miller’s hyper-real descriptions and created a surreal environment. The regal old world furniture of the bygone era of the family’s fortune flies suspended like memory over the action of the play. Memory is addled by time and perspective. We cannot trust it. But it dangles insistently, sometimes as a comfort but more often as a Damocles sword.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is entirely surreal. The play, with music and lyrics by Mark Shaiman and book by David Grieg, is set in the realm of the imagination. Memories mesh with wishes and become a kind of armor. Director Jack O’Brien and Designer Mark Thompson have kept the stage starkly simple.  The audience must suspend disbelief and accept this world as a real possibility.  Otherwise they miss the play’s fundamental truth.  Without his fancy, Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell on the day I attended), might never see what life has to offer. Along with Charlie, we must reach out to worlds “not yet conceived, worlds that must be believed to be seen.”

Charlie is a member of a family so poor they eat rotten Brussels sprouts and make soup from moldy cabbage. His mother Mrs. Bucket (Emily Padgett), a widow, is responsible to feed an absurdly large number of mouths. She has no time or patience for the world of imagination that holds her son in its thrall. She wishes she were free to dream, but she’s been crushed by circumstance. Charlie’s four grandparents live in a single bed in the loft above the kitchen of their little flat. At first, none of them is able to leave that bed. The entire contingent seems cynical, resigned to their predicament, willing to remain prisoners of their poverty.

Grandpa Joe (John Rubenstein), Charlie’s paternal grandfather, is 96 and a half, “about as old as a man can be.” He worked for Willy Wonka when Wonka had nothing but a candy store and then became a security guard at the factory. But spies infiltrated the chocolate world and stole the recipes, forcing Wonka to fire everyone, including Mr. Bucket. Mr. Bucket is not bitter. He understands that his firing was a symptom of the company’s overall failure. And the company’s failure as a sign of the times.

As the story commences, Wonka (Christian Borle) has only just begun to recommence production of his most famous chocolate bar. The Golden Tickets he has hidden in the candy bars serve two purposes. They offer incentives for customers to try the candy and become fans. And they provide Wonka with an opportunity to seek out an honest person to inherit his legacy. He seems to be a man who will cheat even so sweet a boy as Charlie just to make a buck. But things are not as they seem.

In the current production, directed by Jack O’Brien, Charlie is a blithe spirit. He breezes through his troubles without resentment and greets his dismally accoutered world with unerring optimism. When he meets Willy Wonka disguised as a local candy store proprietor, he perceives a chance to be useful and subjugates his own burning desire for the Golden Ticket to the older man’s need for an assistant. He is not paid for his labor, and he never complains, even when a paycheck might enable him and his surreal coterie of bedridden forebears a decent meal. Wonka is a devious guy, squirrely, avaricious. But by the end of the play our suspicions about him are proved true: he’s a sensitive despot, a kind master. He manipulates fate a bit so that Charlie’s wishes can come true.

When Charlie finally finds a ticket after several unsuccessful attempts, he stands out among the winners as the only respectful, grateful presence in the group. Wonka has met him but in disguise and knows what to expect from Charlie, and Charlie does not disappoint. He is unfailingly concerned for the well-being of the others, and he is scrupulously honest and forthright. Charlie is the only contestant, whose eyes are not blinded by the grand prize.

He navigates every moment, present and cognizant of what is around him. He sincerely seeks to learn all there is to know about making chocolate, inventing new treats. He may be poor, but he has real soul. He has drive, but he is not driven to thwart others in his pursuit of his goals. He is a mensch. And this, we come to learn, is what Willie Wonka had hoped he would be. The meek shall inherit after all.

The Price protagonist Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) is walking collateral damage. His father lost everything in the Great Crash of 1929, and Victor’s future was compromised. He missed his chance to go to MIT and “be somebody.”   But Victor never questioned his responsibility. He moved in with Dad, took care of him when he was incapacitated, and sacrificed his will to the needs of the older man. He may not be as jovial as Charlie, but he is no less circumspect. He understands what his choices were, and he has no regrets. He has served as a policeman, has raised a fine son, has never stopped loving his cynical, needy wife (Jessica Hecht).

Victor’s wife is endlessly dissatisfied with everything except her husband, to whom she is unerringly loyal. But she wants more than he has to offer. She begs him to sell the contents of his father’s house at an inflated price. She wishes to buy her way into a life she deems more suitable than that of a policeman’s wife. Knowing the antiques appraiser is on his way, she encourages Victor to embellish the worth of his father’s belongings, to lie about their provenance.

Victor’s older brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) also encourages the younger man to sell out to the highest bidder. Victor sees the inherent worth in the memories imbedded in his father’s furniture. Walter sees only the dollar value. He wants Victor to find a cutthroat appraiser/salesman, one who will fetch the highest price. There is no honor in memory, he insists. Only in wealth.

Mark Ruffalo, as Vincent Franz, and Danny Devito as Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price . (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The appraiser Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito). is a possible agent of change not unlike Willy Wonka . Solomon, like Willy, is a purveyor of goods and seems to be out to take advantage of the honest man. But, like Wonka, Solomon appreciates the younger man’s honesty and his integrity. In the end, he enables Victor to keep his integrity, to remain faithful to his way of life. Victor will retain his Name. In an Arthur Miller play, the name is all.

It would be tempting to liken the productions on other levels. Danny DeVito,for example, making his Broadway debut, seems to have taken a few moves from Christian Borle’s play book. His Solomon is a Vaudeville version of Borle’s Commedia-based Wonka; both milk physical presence to augment the humorous irony of their characters. But that’s not the point.

We live in an era when most of us feel like Dahl’s intended audience. We are all “on their knees,” looking up at the giant fist of oligarchic power. Too many of us know what it is to be derided, as Victor is, for being satisfied with remaining in the economic middle class. We’ve felt the ridicule that Charlie endures for being poor. What makes both The Price and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so satisfying is that their heroes stand in and up for us.  They show the world that right is might in all the ways that matter.

Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now playing on Broadway (photo Courtesy of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre).

Best of all, neither Victor nor Charlie has lost his way. Neither has given in to the pressure to embrace the attitudes of those who perceive the un-rich as “losers.” Both have retained an innocence and a positivity that enables them to revel in their successes. By being good, honest people, they believed they would prevail. And despite encountering others whose greed and pride could undermine them, they do.

 

 

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Catch a Flying Star.

Mary Martin as Peter Pan with Wendy (Kathleen Nolan), Michael (Joseph Stafford) and John (Robert Harrington), 1954

I was 7 when my mother took me to a friend’s house to watch the first telecast of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin.  While I loved Peter, I saw myself in Wendy(Kathleen Nolan), my more accomplished self, stuck in responsibilities, too pragmatic and obedient to just crow.  Jumping up and down with excitement, I watched her take off on her first flight, and I think that was the first time I remember crying for joy.  Wendy was saved.  No matter what, she’d never again be trapped in that holding pattern where a young lady is not allowed to be a child but isn’t yet respected as an adult.  From now on, when adults yelled at her, Wendy could escape, return to the joyous memory of flying.

Which made me wonder about Wendy’s mother.  Would she, like my mother, be impatient with the frivolity of childhood?  When Wendy was in her room writing about Peter, would her mother shame her into emerging from her cocoon to look after siblings?  Would Wendy’s mother be angry when Wendy slept too late after a night of fantasy-induced insomnia?  I concluded that Wendy’s mother must be far too enlightened for any of that.  No doubt, Wendy’s mom had had a spectacular childhood, and, as a result, took pleasure from her daughter’s fancies.  In short, Wendy’s mother was my ideal mom.  Every year, I’d watch Mary Martin fly away, leaving Wendy and Nana, and I wasn’t the least bit sad.  Because I just knew that Wendy was happily where she belonged.

How gratifying that Rick Elice has envisioned the perfect childhood for my imaginary mother.  His Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), the heroine of Peter and the Star Catcher, who will be Wendy’s mother someday, is strong and brave and smart and competitive and obnoxiously self-assured; she leads the boys into their life of perpetual childhood, a life she has even designed for them.  She facilitates Peter’s epiphany that allows him to meet himself and laughs in the face of Captain Black Stache (Christian Borle) as she thwarts his evil and sets him up as the favorite prey for the omnipresent croc.  In short, Wendy’s mother Molly is exactly the kind of girl I wanted to believe my mother should have been because she was who I wished I were.

Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger)

Wendy isn’t the kind of girl who’ll grow up to be a man-hating feminist.  Nor will she ever want to be one of the guys.  She is proud of her femininity and then reveals that she is also unafraid to be soft and vulnerable. Celia Keenan-Bolger captures her brilliantly, her perfect voice and demeanor cloaking the girl (or is she really older than we think?) in vari-colored nuances that make her starkly real while still a figment of our collective imagination.

Smee (Kevin Del Aguila) and Stache (Christian Borle)

 Wendy is not alone onstage.  She is surrounded by a brilliant company, swinging from role to role never dropping even a shadow of the thread.  Christian Borle could not be more enchanting as the company man and the dastardly Captain Stache. He chews up the scenery in a frolicking frenzy of masterful comic acting and then, to prove his true command of the craft, he revels in a line that pokes fun at himself for doing so — vowing that no croc is going to devour scenery while he’s onstage!

Peter and the Star Catcher Company

There’s no one who’s not terrific here.  Adam Chanler-Berat as Boy, Arnie Burton as Mrs. Bumbrake, and  Kevin Del Aguila as Smee may seem salient, but the whole ensemble deserves equal credit for bringing this romp to full-boar life.

 Peter and the Star Catcher misses not one single beat in this production, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater (http://peterandthestarcatcher.com).  Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have found just the right pace, exactly the best staging, have chosen precisely the best creative team, and there isn’t so much as a single hiccup of error.

Which brings it all back to Rick Elice.  The best character in this play is The Play itself.  Pure theatrics at their most basically theatrical.  No pyrotechnics, no high gloss effects, jut flawless actors capable of endowing pieces of string with more life than a wilderness of monkeys.  Peppered with allusions to everything you’ve ever seen (or read) and loved before but rife with originality, this is a play that asks the audience to play along, to suspend disbelief in the suspension of disbelief and then gently forces us to believe long before Peter asks us to clap and prove it.

In the end, empowered by our own delight, we leave theater knowing that the vagaries of our lives and its multiple responsibilities will hereafter be mitigated by this memory of flying.