Written By Joel Benjamin
The Boss by Edward Sheldon boosts the Metropolitan Playhouse’s reputation for presenting fine tuned productions of plays from the turn of the Twentieth Century. The melodramatic plot and characters of The Boss might have come across as hackneyed, stereotyped or even funny had the troupe’s Artistic Director, Alex Roe not found the humanity in each of the characters and the inherent drama in the plot which has resonance even today: in 1911, a blue collar laborer, Michael R. (“Shindy Mike”) Regan, has worked his way up to the top, using any means necessary—violence, blackmail, etc.—to take over a major grain shipping industry in “one of the Eastern lake-ports.” In doing so he has pulled the rug out from under the distinguished Griswold family which held sway over that industry. Regan offers to let the Griswolds keep at least some of their company and some of their dignity, if they will let him marry Emily Griswold, the lovely daughter of James and sister of Donald. Emily reluctantly agrees with the caveat that the marriage would be in name only.
In the end Regan’s ham-handed labor tactics backfire and cause unrest. He is besieged by destructive strikes and walk-outs, mostly stage managed by the bitter Donald Griswold who works to undermine the social inferior who stole his sister and his family’s reputation. Things at home are not any better. Even though he truly loves Emily, Regan is rebuffed until a sudden twist—typical of melodramas—results in a happy ending. Regan, hardboiled and ambitious, nevertheless inspires loyalty in his friends and, eventually, real love from the least likely people.
How the playwright Edward Sheldon skillfully manages to keep all these machinations interesting is a testament to the strength of his characters’ inherent depth and to Alex Roe’s incisive staging. The tiny Metropolitan Playhouse brings the action practically into the laps of the audience members so any falseness would be easy to read. Even the characters that have little stage time register as three-dimensional. The two characters that Carolyn Hartvigsen plays, the clueless socialite and ditzy French maid, come across as more than mere plot devices. J. Stephen Brantley also plays a few small roles including Mitchell, the Griswold’s butler and union member Scanlan and makes them equally vivid.
The entire cast works well. As the elder Griswold, Richard Cottrell has self-possession, yet clearly is affected by the assault on his lifestyle. As the hotheaded Donald Griswold, Erik Gullberg is properly handsome and upper crust. John Fennessy as the Archbishop Sullivan, finds the perfect balance between his working class background and the dignity of his position. Joel Rainwater is fine as Regan’s childhood buddy and strong arm enforcer who proves his loyalty.
The lead couple, Regan and Emily, around whom all the action swirls, are played by Dave Hanson and Meghan Hoffman. It takes skilled actors to take this relationship through all its ups and downs. Hanson makes Regan’s strong love quite clear so we can understand why he takes his “wife’s” abuse. He is the cruel boss one moment and the moony lover-boy the next. Ms. Hoffman’s Emily displays upper crust bearing without being haughty. There is always something going on in her mind so that her final scene makes complete emotional sense.
The simple, but evocative stage design by Mr. Roe takes advantage of the space. Sidney Fortner’s costumes also create the era and clearly define the class differences. Joel Rainwater’s Fight Choreography was as real as it could be in such a small space and Christopher Weston’s lighting made the most of the space, creating many moods.
The Metropolitan Playhouse can chalk up another success and another reason to seek out more hidden treasures of American Theater.
The Metropolitan Playhouse
220A East 4th St. (Bet. Aves. A & B)
New York, NY
Through December 16th, 2012
Tickets and Information: 212-995-5302 or www.metropolitanplayhouse.org