In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review an important Florida revival, Asolo Rep’s production of Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses. Here’s an excerpt.
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For much of the 20th century, Maxwell Anderson was as hot as a playwright can be. Between 1923 and 1958, he wrote or collaborated on 29 plays and two musicals that made it to Broadway, a dozen of which were hits. Stage stars like Katharine Cornell, Rex Harrison, Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne clamored to appear in his verse dramas, whose popular success led to a short-lived revival of the genre. He won a Pulitzer Prize, made the cover of Time and penned the lyrics to Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” which continues to be sung today. But Anderson’s over-earnest poeticizing became démodé long before his death in 1959, and none of his plays has ever been revived on Broadway.
The only one to hold the stage today is the Pulitzer-winning “Both Your Houses,” a 1933 prose drama about corruption in Washington that has received a fair number of regional revivals, most recently by Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, which mounted it last October, and Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre, whose production has just opened. Never having seen a Maxwell Anderson play, I feared that this one would prove to be a dusty museum piece. I couldn’t have been further off target: “Both Your Houses” is a take-no-prisoners satire that crackles with fast-talking vitality, and Frank Galati’s slam-bang staging is as good as anything you’re likely to see on Broadway, or anywhere else, this season….
In Anderson’s play, a starry-eyed schoolteacher from Nevada with the too-good-to-be-true name of Alan McClean (Tom Coiner) wins a seat in the House, unaware that he was elected with the help of a cabal of unscrupulous contractors who expect him to unwittingly do their bidding by shoehorning a half-billion-dollar dam into the next appropriations bill….
What makes “Both Your Houses” so fresh, paradoxically enough, is its old-fashioned tone: It plays like a pre-Code Hollywood comedy full of plot twists and snappy comebacks. Most of the latter are delivered by Sol Fitzmaurice (Douglas Jones), a hard-drinking congressman of boundless cynicism (“By God, if there’s anything I hate more than store liquor, it’s an honest politician!”) who endeavors without success to school his fresh-faced friend in the profitable ways of politics. The women in the 16-person cast are just as hard-boiled—you half expect to see them chewing gum….
Mr. Galati, who also staged Asolo Rep’s flawless 2011 revival of “Twelve Angry Men,” clearly knows how to crack the whip in big-cast plays. Not only does he keep “Both Your Houses” charging forward, but he’s trimmed Anderson’s wordy script so skillfully that you’d never guess anything was missing. He also has at his disposal a redoubtable ensemble cast, with Mr. Jones, who stole the show in “Twelve Angry Men,” giving a raspy-voiced performance so deeply etched that you can all but feel his colleagues rising to the occasion….
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Read the whole thing here.
A scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s 2014 revival of Both Your Houses, directed by James Bohnen: