A History Play Where the Past Never Feels Past

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

The New York Idea
Lucille Lortel Theater
121 Christopher St.
New York, N.Y.

The curtain went up on The New York Idea, a 1906 comedy at New York’s Lucille Lortel theater, and the audience saw two elderly women on a couch.  Oh, no, I thought. This is going to be another dreary old turn-of-the-century drawing room comedy—Moliere in Manhattan.

The play was written by Langdon Mitchell in 1906 and then re-written by David Auburn (Proof) last year.  The plot involves two divorced couples in the process of re-marrying, a British dandy, a French maid and a racehorse named Cynthia K. If that isn’t uninspiring, I don’t know what is.

Yet The New York Idea is delightful.  Everybody on stage is dressed in 1906 clothing and there are several references to the era—Wright brother’s planes, Jim Crow race relations, lack of telephones and horseback riding in the street—yet it has a modern feel and contemporary zest.  And a lot of laughs.

The play is about the adventures of the refined, well-dressed Cynthia Karslake as she rambles from one husband to another and appears to be quite an expert on horse racing.  The play takes place on the night of her latest wedding.  She is betrothed to a judge, Philip Philimore, and trying to shake the memory of her first husband, John Karslake.  Her new love has parted company with his ex, the vivacious Vida Philimore.  On this wedding day, they are visited by British bon vivant Wilfred Case-Darby, a member of not one, but two upper-crust society crowds, in London and New York.

There are a number of twists and turns in the story, all keeping it remarkably fresh for a hundred-year-old play.  With new clothes and a few script changes—and a faster horse and cell phone—it could have been set in 2010.  There is much humor in the play and all of the martial zingers hurled with such comic venom hit their targets.

This is a drawing room play that draws you out of the drawing room into a 1906 world of martial tussles, romantic twists, fast horses and likable people.

Since it was written so long ago, its history certainly reflects the era, down to the women’s headgear for riding about in the new fangled automobiles. However, the play should have used more history to give audiences who see it today a better picture of New York in that era.  The city at that time was a bustling metropolis, exploding with people.  If any one word described it, that word would be congestion.  The town’s first subway had opened two years earlier, horses and cars competed for space on the avenues, street gangs battled each other in the Clinton area of town, baseball teams in two leagues battled for pennants, factories and their smokestacks dotted the skyline and vaudeville was at the height of its popularity.  Chinatown, with some 12,000 residents, was starting to grow, business was booming for theaters on the Bowery, the city was full of yellow journalism newspapers, enormous reform movement parades wound their way through town, huge advertising posters graced the sides of buildings, street vendors and their carts jammed city streets, there was a cocaine epidemic, street gang wars, the debut of organized crime, plus armies of street urchins and hobos.

The play’s racetrack plot should have explained that in 1906 horseracing was probably the biggest spectator sport in America.  Tracks routinely attracted capacity crowds and newspapers devoted gargantuan amounts of space to stories on racing, results and odds sheets.  And this was all in the day before Off Track Betting and Simulcast.

All of the performers are good in the play, but Jaime Ray Newman, as Cynthia Karslake, is superb.  She sizzles when she plunges into her racetrack persona (if you wind up at a racetrack some balmy summer night, this is the woman you want sitting next to you).  Frances Faridany is equally dazzling as the voluptuous Vida, who gets as many laughs with the way she pouts and tilts her head as from what she actually says.

Director Mark Brokaw does a fine job of giving the action in the play a nice ebb and flow and works very hard to make certain that this is not a drawing room play.

The play has some drawbacks.  The second act moves slower than the first and the madcap ending is rather predictable.  Despite some wooden moments and its lack of a sturdier history, The New York Idea is a good idea for theatergoers.

PRODUCTION:  Lucille Lortel Theater and the Atlantic Theater Company. Set: Allen Moyer, Costumes: Michael Krass, Lighting: Mary Louise Geiger, Period Etiquette and Style: Frank Ventura. Directed by Mark Brokaw.

CAST:  Mrs. Philimore (Patricia O’Connell), Miss Henage (Patricia Conolly), Thomas (Tom Patrick Stephens), Sudley (Peter Maloney), Cynthia Karslake (Jaime Ray Newman), Philip Philimore (Michael Countryman), Matthew Philimore (Joey Slotnick), John Karslake (Jeremy Shamos), Wilfred Cates-Darby (Rick Holmes), Vida Philimore (Francesca Faridany), Jacqueline (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann).

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