September 2, 2011

Forgotten artists tend to be forgotten for good reasons, but not always. The Mint Theater Company, one of New York’s most admired Off-Broadway troupes, specializes in neglected plays that have slipped through the cracks. More often than not it comes up with gems, among the most notable of which was Rachel Crothers’s “Susan and God,” first seen in 1937 and revived by the Mint to impressive effect in 2006. Now the company has gone back to the same well with an equally strong staging of another Crothers play, “A Little Journey,” which hasn’t been performed professionally in New York since it closed on Broadway in 1919—and guess what? It’s just as good.

Ms. Crothers, America’s most successful woman playwright, is all but unknown today. Born in 1878, she wrote some 30-odd plays that made it to Broadway prior to her death in 1958, most of which she also directed and many of which, like “A Little Journey” and “Susan and God,” were hits that were later filmed. How could so distinguished a female artist have vanished into the memory hole? You’d think that literary-minded feminists would have been her most outspoken champions. But Ms. Crothers, like Lillian Hellman, was a commercial playwright who specialized in “well-made” plays, a genre that became unfashionable after Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller trashed the theatrical rulebook, and the fact that she’d been so popular in her lifetime worked against her posthumously. Not until the Mint exhumed “Susan and God” did it occur to anyone that her body of work deserved a second look.

All of which brings us to “A Little Journey,” an unusually well-crafted play about a group of strangers of widely varied backgrounds who get to know one another while traveling by train from Grand Central Station to the West Coast. You’ve heard that one before, right? In fact, it’s one of the best-known of storytelling tricks, but “A Little Journey” predates Vicki Baum’s “Grand Hotel” by a decade, and Ms. Crothers may actually have invented the device herself. More importantly, she uses it with great freshness, tucking a surprise into the last act that will make you jump.

Julie (Samantha Soule), the play’s central character, is a priggish, penniless aspirant to high society who gets dumped at the altar, catches the next train to Montana to lick her wounds, and meets Jim (McCaleb Burnett), a seemingly carefree gent from out West who is deeper than he looks. So, it turns out, is Julie, whose shallow ambitions are put to the test when…but that would give the game away, wouldn’t it? Suffice it to say that Ms. Crothers’s dramatic hand is full of aces, all of which she plays with richly satisfying professionalism.

One of the nicest things about Ms. Crothers’s plays is that they’re high-minded without being the least bit stuffy. The point of “A Little Journey,” for instance, is that the only alternative to existential despair is to seize each day and live it to the fullest. “Can’t everyday life have in it anything you want to put into it?” Jim asks midway through the second act. But Ms. Crothers knew that the most effective way to preach a sermon is to embed it in a fast-moving plot and adorn it with snappy dialogue. Accordingly, “A Little Journey” sounds for most of its length not like a sobersided morality play but a sparkling comedy of manners: “Six thousand a year with a real man would be—well—I’d take a chance on it. In fact I’d grab it.” “It wouldn’t pay for one-third of your clothes.” “Oh, slush—what do clothes mean after you’ve got a man?” Imagine a cross between “Our Town” and “The Women” and you’ll get an idea of how “A Little Journey” plays.

The Mint long ago mastered the magical art of cramming big shows onto its shoebox-size stage without breaking anything. Roger Hanna’s set for “A Little Journey,” for instance, turns Ms. Crothers’s sleeper car into a simple but handsome-looking revolving carousel, a sleight-of-hand trick that gives the production a feeling of forward movement unrivaled by infinitely more complicated (and expensive) Pullman-car sets. Jackson Gay, the director, has deployed his 14 actors with imaginative precision, and even the smallest roles are boldly characterized. Best of all is Ms. Soule, a familiar face on the New York stage who has never gotten the attention she deserves and who gives a quietly underplayed yet warm and affecting performance as Julie. Martha Hally’s period costumes are right on the button.

Amazingly enough, “A Little Journey” isn’t the only Rachel Crothers play currently on the boards: “He and She” opened this week at the East Lynne Theatre Company of Cape May, N.J. Might this be the beginning of a boomlet? Here’s hoping.