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Unlike the vulgar, insipid plays that have recently cashed in on Jewish themes and situations, the pre-Chanukah show at the Wilbur honestly aims at drama. But in outlining the fiscal and marital vagaries of a garment manufacturer, Mr. Leslie Weiner doesn't reach it.
His central figure, Woody Hartman, gives Sydney Chaplin little to work with. Whether or not Weiner intended some symbolic use for that name, he has drawn a wooden and immobile character. Woody's personality seems to be a function of his political beliefs: active member of SANE, NAACP-good guy. But later, no time for SANE, fires a Negro employee-bad guy.
Weiner uses this technique-characterization by telling reference-to the point of inanity. The mention of Spain, a comment such as "once I thought Socialism was the answer," serve to stereotype, but never to clarify. One never really learns what Woody Hartman's problem is. On his 40th birthday he says he has misgivings about the value of his life and the viability of his marriage. But how does he express the fact that he hates going through the middle-class motions? By second thoughts about his Great Neck home.
Woody falls in love with his secretary, an attractive intelligent English girl. If he divorces his wife, however, a deal vital to the firm's success will fall through because Woody's father-in-law is in a dominant position financially; the business must fold, and his father's (Howard Da Silva's) heart must break.
Throughout this love vs. Great Neck conflict Da Silva shows himself as one of the richest actors on the American stage, capable of humor and sadness, broad power and fine detail. If In the Counting House does little else, it suggests the range of his abilities.
Meanwhile, back on Madison Avenue, Weiner's play hints at social commentary, it hints at some real exploration of its characters; it hints at many dramatic statements and then shies off. The tension in Woody Hartman's life is finally between personal sacrifice and personal gratification; a divorce and an affair; a business coup and a business risk. The sense of life that Woody talks about when he reaches 40 disappears from our sight...too bad. One wife or another is not made to seem very important, actually. By an irony the play emphasizes the financial index of success: precisely because Howard Da Silva is the most vivid human being we see, and because the success of the Business is vital to him, the audience finds itself rooting very hard for the commercial vindication of Miss Julie Lingerie, Inc., or whatever it was called.
Disappointment is always strongest when a work has moments of strength; one criticizes more readily a play with high aspirations. In the Counting House has both, and Arthur Penn's direction, facile and clever in the best sense, gives it clarity from time to time. Barbara Murray (Woody's secretary), and Kay Medford, a second receptionist, present their characters sympathetically.
The real faults of course are the author's. He has taken the not-too-interesting dilemma of a not-too-enlightened boss and tried to impart a significance that just wasn't there. The result is sheer confusion at worst, (including some chronological impossibilities in Woody's life), and fleeting insight at best.
Mr. Weiner fits all too easily into a pattern of mediocrity in our theatre. He writes with indignation but no concept of tragedy. He substitutes a sense of proportion for one of dramatic construction, and political name-dropping for social compassion. Television, undeniably, is too bad a medium for this play. And by that standard, the theatre suits it well.
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