October 1, 2005

We know the story. Two young women from the sticks come to New York in search of romance. They meet two young men on the same quest, as well as some hardened older characters who advise and influence them with very mixed results.

Hollywood took this basic pattern in the 1930’s and turned it into musicals, working-girl dramas and romantic comedies. But with her gift for dialogue and her insight into what makes ordinary people worth caring about, the novelist and playwright Dawn Powell was a few steps – and at times light years – ahead of Hollywood. Her 1931 play, “Walking Down Broadway,” is a romantic comedy and a tough-minded drama. It has snappy talk and high spirits; also real grief and desperation.

Powell did sell it to 20th Century Fox, where Erich von Stroheim made it an altogether different film called “Hello, Sister!” But amazingly, her play has never been produced onstage. Cheers to the Mint Theater for going where others feared to tread or else never bothered to look. This production, directed by Steven Williford, gets almost everything right: the slang and the speed; the glamour and the fakery.

Marge Bonner and Elsie Dorfman are from Miracle Falls, Ohio. Marge was always serious and respectable while Elsie’s big-eyed baby talk made her the most popular girl in town. Now they live in the Manhattan boardinghouse of a “refined Southern gentlewoman” with pink walls, flowered curtains and mismatched pastel print bedspreads.

They work in a secretarial pool, and at night, as Marge says bitterly: “We wash out our stockings and our handkerchiefs and we mend our shoulder straps and then we go to bed and cheer ourselves up by telling stories about a boy that used to be crazy about us when we were in fourth grade. And then crying ourselves to sleep because we’re so darned lonesome and then saying, just to cheer each other up, ‘Well, anyway, we’re in New York.’ ”

But tonight Marge and Elsie walked up Broadway and down Riverside Drive for an hour and a half and nabbed two young men when Marge dropped her pocketbook at one’s feet.

As the play begins, Marge (Christine Albright) and Elsie (Amanda Jones) have invited Chick (Denis Butkus) and Dewey (Ben Roberts) to their room. Elsie flirts; Dewey fidgets. Marge and Chick like each other but, embarrassed, start to bicker. Plot fireworks go off when a worldly peroxide-blond boarder, Eva Elman (Carol Halstead), strides in. The explosions get bigger in Act II, when we meet Mac (Antony Hagopian), the men’s swaggering lady-killer roommate.

Marge and Chick must face a sexual crisis without euphemisms. Given the low level of debates about premarital sex, pregnancy and abortion now, Powell’s unsentimental compassion isn’t just heartening, it’s staggering. Both actors, especially Ms. Albright, show how these young people careen from idealism to panic and despair.

Powell’s other characters go beyond formula and so do the actors. Elsie’s willful shallowness is funny, but we see how she will age and it isn’t pretty, while Dewey has a glib ease that attracts the insecure of both sexes. Writing, directing and the acting of Cherene Snow turn what might have been an embarrassment – a black maid’s breezy cynical monologue about men and marriage – into a delight.

Only the actors playing older cynics indulge in overkill; I’d like to see Mr. Williford help them tone down (along with two women who appear in the last scene).

At the play’s end we feel the pressure of period conventions. But that’s a small price to pay for an evening like this.