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The Theatre: New Plays in Manhattan: Feb. 3, 1936

3 minute read

Ethan Frome (adapted by Owen & Donald Davis; Max Gordon, producer). When Max Gordon announced that he was going to present a dramatized version of Novelist Edith Wharton’s frosty little masterpiece, the first thing that came to the minds of those who had read Ethan Frome was that the producer would have a devilish time staging the sledding crash which is the tragedy’s ironic climax. As it turns out, there need have been no such public anxiety. Between them, Producer Gordon, the Playwrights Davis and Designer Jo Mielziner have achieved a rare triumph of art and showmanship.

When the play’s big moment comes, the curtain parts to reveal a snowy New England hilltop, winterset and blue-white under cold bright stars. Ethan (Raymond Massey) climbs to the top of it, his boots actually squeaking in the glittery surface. Pathetic little Mattie (Ruth Gordon) lies down on the sled with him and, with a whistle of wind, they vanish over the far side of the slope. How they maim themselves, instead of smashing out their lives on the big tree at the bottom as they intended, is told in an epilog.

Novelist Wharton wrote a painful book. Her story of how Ethan and young Mattie, trying to escape the nagging claims of Ethan’s sickly wife, become instead dependent on her attentions for the rest of their lives, is presented relentlessly, a bitter frieze of figures on a frozen ground. On stage, Ethan Frome is not quite so painful. The Davises have had some mercy on the wife Zenobia, probably because, as Miss Wharton originally wrote it. the part would not have fitted the compassionate stage manner of Pauline Lord. This reorientation of Zenobia required a general softening up of the other characters. Actor Massey, a Canadian who knows how to wear a sheepskin coat as if he realized its usefulness, thus loses some of his customary forceful directness. Ruth Gordon, a noted giggler, makes the stage Mattie sillier than Edith Wharton intended her to be.

I Want a Policeman (by Rufus King & Milton Lazarus; Francis Curtis, Richard Myers, producers) runs true to the form of latter-day stage mysteries which, unable to compete with the range and detail of cinema thrillers, depend for their excitement upon foolish exaggeration and lots of low comedy. For almost three acts, I Want a Policeman is motivated by the fact that every time somebody tries to tell somebody else how rich Mr. Davidson died, nobody will listen. Meanwhile, a boob policeman (Harold Moffet), a silly Englishwoman (Estelle Winwood) and an eccentric youngster (Clinton Sundberg) try for laughs.

Wrote Detective Storyteller King (The Lesser Antilles Case, Valcour Meets Murder) before the premiere: “Murder in the family circle never pays, whereas murder in a manuscript does. That is to say, every now & then.” There being no other comparable melodrama currently playing on Broadway, this may be one of those profitable times for Mr. King.

A Room In Red & White (by Roy Hargrave: Dwight Deere Wiman & George Kondolf, producers) is a one-act Grand Guignol melodrama about a family poisoning inflated to three acts. The facts that the play was written by Roy Hargrave (House Party), acted by Chrystal Herne and set as for a durbar by Jo Mielziner, do not prevent A Room In Red & White from becoming tedious. Silliest scene: the one in which a fiendish father (Leslie Adams) manages simultaneously to knock flat both his wife and their grown son.

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