Off-off-Broadway shows kept opening during the Fringe Festival, so it’s sure not going to stop in its tracks for the Musical Theatre Festival, and Gothamist had the pleasure of seeing one of the new season’s newest offerings the other night. The Breadwinner, a revival by the Keen Company of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1931 play, is so full of witty, insightful lines that we almost want to see it again in order to make sure we heard them all, and to copy a few down to save. The excellent acting is keyed perfectly to Maugham’s tone and underlying message with this glimpse of two families in Britain between the World Wars, in which the drama unfolds after one of the fathers (the titular breadwinner) rocks the boat by opting out of what everyone around him insists is a wonderful life, but which he can no longer stand. Some of the dialogue seems slightly clichéd, it’s true, but a surprising lot of it still feels strikingly fresh and important to listen to and consider for one’s own good.
For much of the first act, Charles, the father (Jack Gilpin, in a skillfully multilayered performance), is absent, both from the stage and from the other characters’ minds. The play opens with his two children chatting with their cousins about what a hardship it is to lack their own cars, and how tedious it is to talk to older people who fought in WWI. This banter is wickedly funny, particularly Charles’ son Patrick’s (Joe Delafield), whose feeling about money is a pretty constant one among kids: wealth is wasted on older people, so it would be best if we could just pack them off to the country, give them a little stipend and use the rest of the money ourselves, he proposes, on things like replacing grass with clay on the tennis courts (it’s just “an ordinary necessity of existence,” he fumes). The two wives, Margery and Dorothy, take the stage next, and they too go on about what they have to put up with in men and how much they wish they could just have their own lives, Charles’ wife Margery in particular. Little does she suspect how soon that wish will be granted, until Alfred, Dorothy’s hyper husband, arrives and reveals that Charles has gotten into a major bind at work (he’s a stockbroker); then, finally, Charles himself saunters in and quickly makes it clear that while everyone else has been taking him and his satisfaction with life for granted since he came back from the war 12 years ago, he has real reasons to be dissatisfied with his life and he’s through with the past.
It’s obvious from the first moment of the play that Maugham is making fun of pretty much everyone in it – making fun of people in general, really – and the cast does a fine job of exaggerating the motions and tones of their already stereotypical characters in such a way as to demonstrate how absurd they are in a bitingly funny way, but managing not to seem too over-the-top. That they have to fake British accents means all the expected upper-class inflections and tics are especially emphasized, which is perfect here. They also look like early 20th century people, particularly the younger generation, in their crisp tennis outfits and slicked-back hair and faces that somehow seem fresh and clean of any knowledge of the war that recently passed or those that would soon come. Only Alfred (Robert Emmet Lunney) seems a little odd, mostly because of his insistent joking and playfulness with the others, who take themselves very seriously and are unable to see how ridiculous they are in their mindless privilege.
The Breadwinner isn’t entirely satire, though – from the moment Charles enters and we start to find out what’s going through his head, there is a rather more meaningful thread that puts you off balance if you were expecting to go to the end of the show just laughing at all the characters. Charles is fed up with the rat race, and what he has to say about how he’s come to realize that, even if it’s been said many times before elsewhere, is still poignant, perhaps the more so because those around him have no clue and don’t really care. When Charles talks about how he didn’t fight to live through WWI only to come back to years of drudgery, your heart goes out to him; and when he talks about getting on the train to go to work each morning and seeing everyone else scurrying off to work too, all consumed by trying to make money to buy things even when they don’t know why they need them (things like, say, a clay tennis court or an extra car), your heart gives a painful throb of recognition, at least if you’ve ever dragged yourself every day to a job you don’t love. Of course, the play is mostly fun and there are frequent points where you’re likely to laugh out loud, but that edge that Charles’ realization puts on it, and the more serious undercurrent to the jokes and stereotypes, ensure that it is not just a period piece, but rather retains much that is as relevant today as ever.
Details: The Breadwinner is at the Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th St., through Oct. 2. Shows are Tues-Sat 8pm, Sun. 2pm. Tickets via Smarttix.
Show photo at top by Theresa Squire. Photo of W. Somerset Maugham by Carl Van Vechten.