U.S.A. is a two-hour long play by John Dos Passos and Paul Shyre, based on Dos Passos's 1400 page novel trilogy. The play attempts to depict life in America from the turn of the century until the beginning of the great depression--a hundred million people over a period of thirty years. Born after the end of the time concerned, I cannot say, "This is the way it was," but only that I found U.S.A. an interesting, entertaining, and sometimes moving experience.
Now a fuzzy minded conservative, Dos Passos wrote the original novels while a fuzzy-minded liberal, and the play sometimes verges on the sentimental glorification of the sordid and false that fuzzy-mindedness may produce. However, a coolly ironical detachment saves most of the script from mushiness, and provides a background for emotion-packed events that enables us to accept their content as sentiment, rather than sentimentality.
Described by the authors as "a kaleidoscopic cross-section of representative forms of American life," the play focuses about the life of John Ward Moorehouse, born in Wilmington, Delaware, on the Glorious Fourth. He grows up to become J. Ward Moorehouse, public relations counsel, and U.S.A. surrounds his story with those of others who enter into his life, and with a variety of historical material: biographies of figures from the period--the Wright brothers, Eugene V. Debs, Rudolph Valentino, Henry Ford, the Unknown Soldier among others--songs, dances, newspaper headlines and stories, stream-of consciousness narrative of actual events.
Three actors and three actresses portray a total of some thirty-odd characters. After each episode the authors shake their kaleidoscope and the players fall into a new combination of roles. This use of multiple roles and a bare stage set only with a few chairs permits a fast-paced production that rarely drags and almost always maintains interest.
Philip Harvey, more than any other member of the cast, catches the tone and stance and spirit of each of his roles. Pompously orating as a retiring governor, nonchalantly executing dance steps while talking with Moorehouse, Harvey reaches a high point in the Valentino biography. Standing alone and scarcely moving, he maintains interest through a lengthy speech, shaping it well, building excitement and tension excellently.
Lewis Lehman produces a splendidly left-wing intonation for Debs' famous, "While there is a lower class I am of it, while there is a criminal class I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am not free." As a senescent but energetic healthcultist at a burlesque show, he has a chesty mucous cough which could serve as a symbol of all in the world that is randy, aging, decaying.
Lehman has also directed the play. He stages it simply and straightforwardly, adding many bits that brighten the evening. A welcome touch is variety and characterization within the lively dances, rather than uniform Rockette precision.
None of the other performers reach Harvey and Lehman's level, but they are always adequate and sometimes excellent. June Knight at one point does something marvelous with her lower jaw, which I haven't figured out yet, and makes herself into a young girl. Frederic Moorehouse in the central role of Moorehouse starts out a bit wobbly but gains control as the character grows older. Ann Lilley's performance is aided by her engaging face, fascinating body, and versatile voice. Sally Kirkland looks so charming in a beaded flapper dress that one can forgive her occasional awkward hand-wringing.
The many excellences of this production far outweigh its few defects. A script that might have become disjointed and confusing on stage has been made coherent and exciting entertainment. And the girls are all very pretty.