10/12: Early Rehearsal

After a night of watching 30s comedy highlights (see previous posts), I was amazed to see how the actors had already responded with faster, more clipped speech and more precise movement in their initial scene work. I think I’ll run a clip every time we rehearse, just to get them pumped up. Beats playing “Jump Around.”

Tim Page’s wonderful bio of Powell came from the library, and there’s a fair amount on Jig Saw. Here are some contemporary reviews, all courtesy of his book:

“enough wit for seven plays—and not quite plot enough for one.” Gilbert W. Gabriel, New York American.

“The dialogue is by far the best part…..limps noticeably in its action…” Joseph Wood Krutch, The Nation.

“My plays have the difficulty of my short stories—an excellent real treatment of character and dialogue on a structure of contrived, exaggerated and strained story.” Dawn Powell.

As per usual, the author is brutal to herself. I consider Jig Saw‘s plot to be light in the best possible way; it’s more airy than insubstantial. I do agree with the assessments above as to dialogue and character; James Wolcott once remarked to me that he thought that Powell wrote better about women and drinking than anyone else. Her men are just as good (and every bit as boozy).

As for plot, I think Powell is marvelously contemporary. In not having to worry about Hayes Code restrictions, she was free to write about characters with a casual approach to relationships, something that clearly went on in 1930s New York whether anyone admitted it or not. And a mother/daughter struggle over a man who sits smack in the middle of their ages couldn’t be more timely, given the recent identification, emergence, and possible ascendance of the cougar.

When we rehearsed Act I between Claire and Letty last night, Claire’s concerns about aging—”It’s not wrinkles, it’s oldness inside”—continue to strike me as genuine, and also touching. Powell did not care for Spring Byington’s performance as Claire: “[She] studies her own role with the greatest care and intelligence, reads it with every pause studied, each merry laugh, but has nothing to do with the other characters, does not listen to them, and doesn’t know what they’ve just said.” I think that kind of interpretation of Claire could have hurt the play as much as Byington’s big name helped it. Claire’s a tricky role, and Byington was, to my mind, an odd choice. She was already playing matrons in Hollywood and has a solid, Marmee-like presence on film. Hell, she played Marmee. But Powell has written that Claire “dashes” in on her first entrance, and in a later one enters “furs flying.” Mouse Courtois, our Claire, said last night that she thought of her as one of those people who’s constantly knocking things over and expecting someone else (most likely Rosa, the long-suffering maid) to pick them up.

Understanding the essence of Powell’s wonderful characters will make the production sing, and I wouldn’t want a weightier plot; it’ll “tie a tin can to the tail of a kite,” to quote another great writer, Tennessee Williams. I only carp about plot when the characters don’t engage and intrigue; I’m much more interested in people and the way the work then the things they do, which they’re only doing because of the way they work anyway. Shakespeare has plenty of silly plots; I always think people get married in the comedies because he knew time was up and he had to do something. The actions don’t matter. It’s that marvelous realization of people, who haven’t changed much from Elizabethan times, let alone the 1930s.

In the same review quoted from above, Krutch also said this:

“[She] has achieved a casualness which removes any distressing suggestion that she considers herself unusually naughty and is deliberately trying to shock. In the second place, she eschews the more or less established techniques of both the Wildean epigram and the Broadway wisecrack in favor of a slightly drunken irrelevance of phrase which, in so far as it resembles anything, resembles the manner of Frank Sullivan or James Thurber rather than that of more formally literary wits.”

High praise indeed. And in a 1961 letter, Powell wrote to William Peterson, “Today I sent you a copy of Jig-Saw [sic]….I looked over the play for the first time in years and found it dated and didn’t intend to send it. However, I met Tom Prideaux, a Life drama or film editor I’d once known, and was surpised to have him tell me he had read Jig-Saw a hundred times as a sample of ideal comedy technique.” Peterson would eventually direct the first staging of Jig Saw in 60 years in 1997.

They don’t write ’em like this any more. And certainly no one ever wrote like Dawn Powell. I continue to be amazed and grateful for the opportunity to direct this play.

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