Labor Pains

The New Line Theatre presents a legendary play that tackles unions, press, religion, the rich, even musicians and artists

Oct 10, 2001 at 4:00 am
Labor good. Management bad. That's pretty much the thrust of Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, which is receiving a spirited, entertaining production at the New Line Theatre. Cradle would probably be no more than a footnote in Orson Welles' career were it not for the peculiar circumstances of its premiere, which Welles directed (see the accompanying review of It's All True, playing in repertory with Cradle, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes story of the play).

Working in the comparatively new style of American expressionism, Blitzstein turned the timely issue of labor unions into what we would today call a "sung-through" musical, with few memorable melodies or stand-alone songs. Indeed, only one number, "Gus and Sadie's Love Song," is character-driven and expresses any emotion. The rest of the songs are polemics or satire set to music, delivered by intentionally one-dimensional characters with names such as Mr. Mister, Dr. Specialist and Rev. Salvation. Blitzstein scatters his shot at the press, religion, medicine, education, the military, the rich, popular music, even musicians and artists. Only the oppressed workers are good, and, presumably, composers and actors are OK, too. (Although what Blitzstein would make of his play's being presented by a nonunion company is anybody's guess.) It's the kind of black-and-white thinking that comes only from the extremes of left and right, and we definitely know which camp Blitzstein is in. Apparently, to paraphrase Woody Allen, it's OK to be a bigot for the left.

Cradle is definitely a period piece, and director Scott Miller is wise to play it that way. He's added a clever prologue that works Welles into the action and sets up the conditions of the original premiere, with the actors, forbidden by their own union to set foot on the stage to perform a pro-union piece, playing the whole show from the aisles. Miller deftly meets the challenge of how to nonstage a play, seating actors amid the audience and then sending them to various parts of the auditorium as the action dictates. It's a choice that fits the material perfectly; in fact, it's hard to imagine this play presented with set, props or any attempt at realism.

Even though the strokes are bold and the symbolism heavy-handed (OK, yes, we're all whores and hypocrites), some of the material seems fresh, especially "The Sermon," which satirizes how any political act can be morally justified. It hilariously chronicles the various lines of illogic that led to U.S. involvement in World War I, the kind of twisted thinking that sounds familiar to anyone following the current news. When the company giddily dances up the aisles, celebrating the country's plunge into war (echoing Duck Soup), it's absurd and chilling at the same time, the perfect blend of musical form and content.

With the introduction of Larry Foreman (Aaron Benedict), the rabble-rouser who's attempting to unionize Mr. Mister's workers, we wonder whether the play's imaginary town must be called Preachville and wish that Mr. Lighter Touch might pay a visit. But Benedict is sincere and appealing and succeeds in keeping Foreman human in spite of the pamphlet-style writing. The same goes for most of the talented company, who play the style of the piece perfectly. Terry Meddows and Cindy Duggan both give sharp, funny performances as Editor Daily and Mrs. Mister. Thomas Conway makes an enjoyably nasty Mr. Mister, and Alison Helmer shines in her brief appearance singing "Joe Worker." As the good-hearted prostitute (was there any other kind in 1937?), Victoria Thomas does a nice job with "Nickel Under the Foot." And when the company sings the title song, fists upraised in salutes of defiance and unity, you almost believe that maybe things don't have to be the way they are, that the individual could take on the Mr. Starbucks and Editor Murdochs. And those actors might even be inspired enough to unionize their theater company.