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Theater 30.3 (2000) 124-126
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The Last Piece of the Puzzle
Four Plays by Dawn Powell. edited by Michael Sexton and Tim Page. 1999: Steerforth Press
With the publication of an anthology of four plays, the picture of Dawn Powell's contribution to American letters is complete-ish.
O Dawn Powell's prophetic soul! In her 1934 drawing-room comedy, Jig Saw, one of the characters, who blithely swills his absent hostess's liquor while he's got her on the pan, picks up a piece of the jigsaw puzzle she's been working on and tosses it off the penthouse terrace. The moment is pure Powell. The playwright doesn't have any of the other characters gasp in astonishment or admonish Frank or make any mention at all of the willful if largely benign act of destruction. In fact, it never comes up again, even as the heroine's lover sits down to work on the thing as the curtain rings down. But the audience knows the picture will never be complete. Dawn Powell's true and ardent fans (and that is all of us because in those who admire her, that is what her work inspires--true ardor) know that our picture of her will be subject to the same maddening kind of hole.
That's not to say that we're not much better off than a mere decade ago when I read my first Powell novel. In that time Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page has spearheaded a massive effort to resuscitate a reputation and body of work as obscure as the author's grave in New York City's Potter's Field. All but two of the novels are now in print in paperback, and Page has written Powell's biography and edited her diaries and selected letters. All that remained was to give the world at least a sampling of Powell's work in the theater. To that end, Page and Michael Sexton, a freelance director from New York City, have collaborated on this volume.
The four plays they have chosen represent a range of genres, though not, alas, over a significant course of time. All were written between 1928 and 1934. Only Big Night and Jig Saw had productions during Powell's lifetime, Big Night by the Group Theatre and Jig Saw by the Theatre Guild, and only the latter has been published previously. Women at Four O'Clock splashes playfully around in American expressionism, and Walking down Broadway has the distinction of being the only play Powell ever sold to the movies. Hollywood turned it into Hello, Sister! under the helm of Erich von Stroheim, before he was stripped of control and replaced. (He never made another film.)
The largest question posed by the publication of the collection is: Are these plays of interest solely as works by Dawn Powell or are they stageworthy in their own right? Is this the return of closet drama or an offering to entice producers and artistic directors to correct history's wrongs? To be sure, Page and Sexton have [End Page 124] been crafty in their choices. All the action of Big Night is laid in one setting; for Jig Saw and Walking down Broadway there is only one change of scene. And for a period that regularly saw twenty to forty actors in a play, all three of these require relatively small casts with few costume changes. Only Women at Four O'Clock, with its fantasia that includes a department store floorwalker-cum-ringmaster and a double-decker busload of gardenia-sporting, fur-coated women chanting, "Macy Gimbel Lord and Taylor Macy Gimbel Lord and Taylor," might prove to be too much for the resources of America's average regional theater. So they can be done. But should they be?
There are two answers, "Yes, but . . ." and "No, if . . ." Yes, but they cannot and must not be treated as though they were written by Kaufman and Hart. Powell's essential difference is her wry but unblinking frankness about the human condition, particularly as it manifests...