Leland Moss's production of Toys in the Attic is a willful distortion of a medicore play. But by the mysterious calculus of such things, the distortions hide what should be hidden, muffle the play's mechanical grinding, and render it one of the finest dramas I have seen in some time.
Toys in the Attic is one of Lillian Hellman's workmanlike psychological geographies. In the New Orleans of another generation she sets two spinster sisters. Carrie Berniers, for reasons unknown, is in love with her younger brother Julian. She has, it is remarked, talked like an old maid since the age of 12. Anna, the elder sister, has taken her mother's place caring for the two younger children. Her reasons are not known.
Julian is innocent, perhaps. Perhaps also impotent. He has no head for money, constantly loses it, quite as constantly is given more by his sisters. It may be that truly good men remain so only as long as they refuse to do homage to the Market; it may be that taking unhealthy gifts is itself an end to innocence. Whatever he is, Julian is capable of honor and, in a popular sense defined by the play, love.
He is married to Lily. For reasons known chiefly to her and her mother, Albertine Prince, Lily doubts her own claim to existence, to any existence at all. She muffles herself in a sonerous mysticism, away from those she thinks loath her. All the while her mother, for reasons known chiefly to her and her black lover, Henry Simpson, exercises a constitutional inability to love her.
This schematic--burlesque might be closer to it--is unfair; for all the information is not at hand at the play's start. Miss Hellman lets out detail at a rate that preserves suspense. The virtue of the play is that she makes the discovery of truth a corporate venture. It is as though a vapor of mis-perception hangs over the cast, settling on one character, then another, to be hurled upward in anguish by the other players.
Still, in important ways the play is a heap of Dickensian Smallweeds, each spasmodically throwing his particular pillow. That the Loeb production of Toys in the Attic does not become a series of twitches is due to Leland Moss's direction and superb acting by Nancy Cox as Anna Berniers and Shelia Russell as her sister.
Moss extracts amazing performances from the two, sending them through the first act so breezily that the disease and terror which clank from the script are reduced to melancholy, and even that faded. It is worth purchasing a copy of the play to take the measure of their achievement. Miss Russell sustains a frantic levity, as though she shortly expected her limbs to drop off. Placed against this is Miss Cox's bitter rationalism, her consciousness that everything she does is correctly reasoned from false premises.
Miss Russell's performance re-shapes the play, turning it from a somewhat diffuse arial inspection of the whole group to a study in her absolutism. Our interest is forced to her as she accents the justified doubts of everyone she nears, creating and defending a world in which she might sleep with her brother. The play may be other things in other productions or even on other nights. But Thursday it was an account of exploitation, unrepenting exploitation because in the profoundest, most terrifying sense, necessary. Love is here a willingness to be exploited, to hold back the words of the thoughts of objective considerations. Love is a willingness not to see and, failing that, not to know what is seen; innocence is an instinctive readiness to compromise, to assume compassion everywhere.
Several important sub-plots are obscured by Carrie's acendancy and by some determined bad acting. Jane Wingert, walking awkwardly, issuing the one un creditable accent in the show, makes Albertine Prine a sheet metal figure. Miss Hellman has given her some of the most perceptive lines in the show, but Miss Wingert delivers them in a sterile dead-pan. Bro Uttal is mis-cast as Julian Berniers. He looks and acts too young for the part of a many-time failure, even a romantic one. Hugh M. Hill, as Henry Simpson, is, on the other hand, physically perfect for his part. As Hill stalks onto Frank Hartensteins' excellent set, he is a six-feet-something Pinter menace. Delivering even the few lines he has he is not an actor.