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THE PROGRESSIVE ERA in the United States was marked by a proliferation of gentlemen who made their fortunes dealing in commodities. Combining speculative acumen and luck, such celebrated tycoons as Jay Gould and John Astor made millions. These men stood out not only for their propensity to convert their wealth into meretricious symbols like mansions and Rolls-Royces, but also for the ethos they exemplified. The Goulds and Astors represented a conspicuous clan of moneyed men who spouted the ideals of voluptuous womanhood, the omnipotent buck, and masculine supremacy. Eve Merriam's play, The Club, depicts one evening in the lives of four members of this carriage trade set, dramatizing through song their positions on various pertinent social issues.
The action takes place in an exclusive men's club in 1903. Naturally, the gentry tended to develop special attachments to their gathering places; to make an analogy, the club meant to coteries of affluent gents what the speakeasy became in a subsequent decade, to hordes of thirsty patrons. In this play, Messrs. Bertie, Algy, Freddie and Bobby find that the club, while once a mere entertainmentm, has now become an exigency--a place to vent their grievances, desires and opinions. With unabashed candor and infinite self-important, they lyrically relate their thoughts on any number of topics, from the "graph" to the stock market. But their most vehemently held opinions all center on the nature of females. Although the four staunchly maintain their fondness for women, they still view the fairer sex as pawns in a male game. Bertie and Co. obviously think that the female should be subjugated to the male in all matters. Their chauvinism is turned to bizarre comic uses, however, when in the climactic moments of the play one of the men, seated at the piano, unfurls his tresses to reveal that he is actually a she. So, it turns out, are all of his companions. Thus at the very last moment we are left to ponder the play in a surprise twisted framework.
The accoladas for this production of The Club must go primarily to its troop of stars. Katherine Benfer, Lisa McMillan, Maggie Task and Carolyn Val-Schmidt succeed spectacularly in their masquerade as males (as do Jean Bonard as the club's waiter, Cookie Harlin as the bellboy, and Catherine cappiello as the maestro). The four women manage to mask their sex completely, making the play's conclusion unexpected and delightful, rather than just a foolish coda to a musical frolic. While the actresses use gestures and facial expressions skillfully, it is their vocal talents that carry the play. The Club's dialogue is almost entirely delivered in song. It is a real challenge to bring off a show that is entirely sung without losing the audience to sleep or the exit before the final curtain. But this play sidesteps boredom, thanks both to the musical aplomb of its performers and assorted surprises lika tap dance routine by Harlin and Bonard.
Despite the actresses' fine performances, there is a facet of their characterizations that creates a nagging, if minor, disappointment. Bertie, Freddie, Algy and Bobby were intended by playwright Merriam to represent paradigms of upper class hauteur--to be gleefully chauvinistic, without the vaguest hint of guilt at their authoritative misjudgments of women. In a larger sense, the quartet was to exemplify all such men of affluence. But this is precisely where the show stumble, for Benfer, Mc Millan, Task and Val-Schmidt all work too hard at aping this stereotype. Striving to be warbling Everymen, they fail to make their characterizations personal enough to be individually endearing. Collectively, they do not more than communicate a state of mind pervasive among males of a specific period and class; in a retrospect, their renditions coalesce into a lively blur.
Still, The Club does more than simply present a male chauvinist's eye view of turn of the century America. The show's songs deal with just about every crucial issue of the time, ranging from the necessity of a quality cigar ("A Good Cigar is a Smoke") to the merits of tradition ("Following in Father's footsteps"). These numbers are performed with applaudable gusto, as the actors prance and gesticulate in unison. Meanwhile, solo numbers like "He Reminds Her of Her Father" provide a somber contrast to all the antics. One beautifully staged moment occurs during an episode when one gent is musing over the reported infidelity of his wife. As the lights dim over wafting cigar fumes, another gentleman emerges from the wings to deliver a visceral rendition of "Vesti La Jupe" from Pagliacci. All of these tunes were written during the period 1894-1905, and the names of such luminaries as Victor Herbert and Davis Belasco appear in the credits.
PARTICULARLY AMUSING is the use of props. During the stock market scene, as the quartet bewails the fickleness of finances, Cookie Harlin sings the words from the ticker tape. Later on, the group marches out in their ties and tails, then cavorts around the stage in an outrageous array of feathers and jewels--gaudy enough to make Flo Ziegfeld envious.
The set for The Club is nicely conceived, with a piano on the stage and a long ramp leading into the orchestra seats. Anyone who has visited the Charles Playhouse knows it to be small verging on intimate, and a platform jutting out into the audience only heightens that feeling. Most of the song and dance routines take place on the ramp, giving the action a casual immediacy.
Yet at play's end there still remains the disorienting disclosure of the performers' gender. All along, The Club has been a bastion of masculinity whose patrons have seemed enamored of their lifestyle and loath to relinquish it. But suddenly we learn that the play is intended to reflect what women believe men think. Throwing off its comic guise. The Club reveals itself to be social commentary.
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