As someone living through a media disruption of my own, the 1936 play “Stage Door” reminds me that modern life has always been filled with collisions between technologies, large and small.
In this case, it’s theater colliding with “moving pictures.” Theater used to reign supreme before movies, of course. Yet by the time of the Depression, it was already clear the big screen had the upper hand.
In this chipper and earnest work by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, which is given a vibrant Good Company Players production at the Second Space Theatre, a virtuous New York theater actress wants to take a principled stand: She doesn’t want to cross over to the “dark side” of Hollywood. The stage is where her heart is. But will she remain strong, especially with a fat paycheck calling her?
In that regard, the play is a big, earnest smooch to the dignity and higher calling of live theater.
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There are aspects of “Stage Door” that seem impossibly old-fashioned, including an enormous cast of 29. (Can you imagine paying all those Equity salaries on Broadway today?) The dialogue can have a slightly dated and formal feel, perhaps forcing the audience to dive a little deeper in an effort to connect with a character’s interior world. And while the humor is often crisp, don’t expect a silly farce. (There are no mistaken identities or slamming doors, despite the word in the title.)
What you do get is an elegant and sumptuous community theater production, highlighted by Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s seemingly never-ending parade of exhilarating 1930s period fashions and a keen dramatic arc that adds emotional resonance while asking fascinating questions about art vs. commerce and the definition of success.
“Stage Door” is set in the Footlights Club, a Depression-era New York boarding house for “theatrical” women, and it’s a bustling place. This is where gals who are just starting out on the stage make their home, some of them three to a room, with an early dinner in the communal dining room (you need to eat early to get to the theater on time) and a sorority-type vibe, complete with strong friendships, petty jealousies and the overall chaotic swirl of people leading busy lives.
We’re introduced to a bevy of interesting women, some struggling to get any work at all, others on an obviously upward career trajectory, but the storyline soon settles on Terry Randall (played by Bailey Johnson), a very good stage actress who can’t seem to catch a break. That’s in contrast to Jean Maitland (Jessica Rose Knotts), a mediocre actress whose striking good looks land her a seven-year contract in Hollywood.
Various subplots are woven through, some directly related to Terry, others only tangentially. Two of the strongest have to do with Terry’s friendship with Kaye Hamilton (Suzanne Grazyna), a mouse of a woman struggling to get her first theater job; and her interactions with her pompous playwright boyfriend, Keith Burgess (Charles Montoya) and a high-riding movie studio executive, David Kingsley (Ted Nunes), who understands why Terry is reluctant to make the leap to Hollywood.
Director Elizabeth Fiester quite nicely shepherds her large cast on stage, keeping the pace swift and crisp despite a two-hour-plus running time. One of the fun things about “Stage Door” is that most of the secondary boarding-house characters get opportunities (sometimes brief) to establish their own quirks and personalities, which gives a more textured view of the era. (If the play were written today, it would probably be cut down to less than a dozen characters, which might give it a tighter emotional impact but would lose the happy sense of big scale.) This is very much a play in which women hold the spotlight, and we get to see a fascinating variety of them.
Some of my favorite performances include Brooke Aiello as a harrumphing immigrant pianist, Melissa Geston as a lip-smacking loudmouth and Dorie Sanders as a wise and sarcastic reminder that theater can be little more than grunt-work.
Grazyna, as the mysterious newcomer, offers strong emotional moments, and Nunes is a smooth and compelling standout. Knotts, as the boarding house’s new movie star, is also very good, capturing both her character’s annoying entitlement but also a va-va-voom appeal that explains her movie stardom.
Watching a play (or taking in any work of art) is always a personal experience. “Stage Door” resonated with me in a distinctive way because of a particular place I am in my life. Print newspapers have been decimated by the digital age. No one knows how it will all shake out in the end. Perhaps that conflict isn’t a perfect analogy to live theater vs. digital entertainment, but it’s a reminder that new technologies can have unforeseen consequences.
What gives me hope is that despite the appeal of movies, live theater has managed to survive – and thrive. As an arts journalist, I plan to do the same thing.