A classic 'Cadillac' stuck in reverse
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
"The Solid Gold Cadillac" could stand another tuneup.
The comedy is a satire from the Eisenhower era, and for most of the evening at Studio Theatre, you feel as if you're paying a visit to your grandfather's sense of humor. Not that Grandpa couldn't be funny. It's just that the characters that had him doubled over with delight -- leering executives and uptight secretaries and self-adoring political appointees -- now seem mere dusty figurines, removed from their cabinets for the rare occasions when you want to reach out to the cultural relics of a bygone age.
The sensation of artifact preservation is all the excitement that Paul Mullins's unevenly paced production can generate. While he's secured the services of several expert farceurs -- among them, James Slaughter and Leo Erickson as rascally pre-"Mad Men" stuffed shirts -- they can do only so much with the hoary mechanics of Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman's all-too-familiar brand of boardroom lampoon.
It's a serious problem for comedy when an audience gets to the finish line of a joke long before the joke tellers do. This occurs time and again in "The Solid Gold Cadillac," and the director only makes matters worse by indulging the actors in choppy rhythms and protracted pauses. Even the glacial rotation of James Kronzer's handsome turntable set tends to reinforce a sclerotic quality to the night's progress.
The play, which enjoyed a healthy, 526-performance run on Broadway in the mid-1950s, makes gentle sport of its targets, in ways that only occasionally jibe with a sharper contemporary relish for skewering institutional misbehavior. One line that is received oddly is the observation, by a businessman-turned-bureaucrat played by Michael Goodwin, that since his arrival in Washington, he's learned a thing or two about honesty.
Perhaps the line could be interpreted to mean that ethics are even more degraded in the offices of the fictitious New York conglomerate where much of "Cadillac" takes place. It's a measure of the production's limited comic scope that the comment simply lands with a thud. (In another ill-fitting conceit, a map of the United States -- visible as a company-headquarters backdrop for much of the show -- anachronistically uses states' postal abbreviations that didn't come into effect until the 1960s.)
In the fashion of a Frank Capra movie, "Cadillac" casts an altruistic neophyte into a den of craven iniquity. In this case, the heroine is one Laura Partridge of Jackson Heights, Queens, who has come to the annual stockholders' meeting of the General Products Corporation of America with 10 voting shares and a heap of uncomfortable questions for the board.
Nancy Robinette plays Mrs. Partridge. The actress's praises are deservedly and regularly sung: Her name in the program is itself like the listing of a blue-chip stock. On this occasion, however, her ebullient presence flickers uncertainly, as if she were still in the midst of puzzling out this gregarious, spotlight-seeking, truth-telling busybody. At times, the actress seems to step outside the intense bubble that Mrs. Partridge inhabits and smile a little self-conscious smile, an act that somehow impinges on the character's flakiness and our pleasure in watching her outrageous climb to the top.
The scheming corporate board members recognize Mrs. Partridge as a threat and, seeing, too, her apparent neediness and vanity (she's an out-of-work actress), co-opt her. They hire her as head of stockholder relations, a job with no real function, seeing as the company prefers not to hear from its shareholders. Of course, Mrs. Partridge has other ideas, and in time, she's got all the suits flapping in her formidably zany breeze.
The situation inspires a few chuckles, especially in the opening moments, when Mrs. Partridge confronts the board ever so demurely and flirtatiously -- a sure sign she's trouble. The actors who play the executives, including Paul Nolan and David Sabin, form a convincing conspiratorial pack. And Goodwin is well cast as the former honcho who falls under Mrs. Partridge's spell, though someone with a red pen might have spared him (and us) most of an interminable monologue from the character's days as an amateur actor.
Alex Jaeger's costumes tastefully evoke the primness of the era, in a production in which virtually everything comes to feel passe.
By Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Paul Mullins. Lighting, Mark Lanks; sound and projections, Erik Trester. With Laura Dunlop, Russell Jonas, Chelsey Christensen, Daniel Kenner, Daniel Flint, Michael Hammond, Declan Cashman. About two hours.