• U.S.

The Theatre: New Play in Manhattan: Dec. 12, 1938

2 minute read

American Landscape (by Elmer Rice; produced by The Playwrights’ Company). In the fall of 1934, after two of his plays (Judgment Day, Between Two Worlds) had been panned, Elmer Rice, calling first-night audiences “the scum of the earth,” savagely forswore the theatre. But when The Playwrights’ Company was formed last spring, Rice quietly chucked away his vow. Last week his American Landscape followed the Company’s Knickerbocker Holiday and Abe Lincoln in Illinois to Broadway.

No play to make first-night audiences shrive themselves for past sins is American Landscape. Four years of sulking in his tent have robbed the Rice who wrote The Adding Machine, Street Scene, Counsellor-at-Law of all his old cunning, power, punch. American Landscape tells of the head of an old Connecticut family (Charles Waldron), a benevolent paternalist out to sell his factory because it has been unionized. To make a clean sweep, he decides to sell his farm as well. But when he agrees to sell it to a Nazi Bund for a “recreation ground,” not only his family protests, but his long-dead forebears — along with Harriet Beecher Stowe and fiction’s famed Harlot Moll Flanders — rise from their graves to remonstrate with him.

Like Abe Lincoln in Illinois, American Landscape sounds the trumpet for free dom, tolerance and democracy. A timely and impressive theme, Mr. Rice has hag ridden it into a loud and loquacious ser mon. In its few good moments the play rises to ringing eloquence, but far oftener sinks to stagy gestures and sentimental shenanigans.

No real drama propels Rice’s story. Only flag-draped speeches and Fourth-of-July sentiments drift across the stage. Ghosts do the work, all too picturesquely, that cries out for living men. At its worst, the play is mere drivel. When the final curtain comes down on the family drinking a toast, it seems like the conclusion of a homemade English boarding-school playlet. When Moll Flanders (Isobel Elsom) rustles archly across the stage in her duchessy silks, mouthing fancy, ye-old-tea-shoppe truisms, she brings to mind Penrod and his friends acting out Mrs. Lora Rewbush’s egregious Arthurian “pageant.”

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