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Mayday, Indeed!

June 7, 2011 – 08:44 — Jay Reisberg

Mayday! Mayday!

Written and Directed by Dale Walkonen
A Staged Reading

Mayday! Mayday! is an extraordinary and brilliant play, written and directed by Dale Walkonen. A bold statement — yes! As I enumerate the reasons for such a blunt proclamation, you may get the impression that I am joking, because the play is centered on what might be considered a preposterous array of both global and personal issues, which in other hands would result in a mélange of overblown oration and artificiality. Ms. Walkonen takes on, in turn, early 20th Century feminism, environmentalism, war profiteering, capitalistic manipulation, government censorship, covert and overt propaganda, pacifism, the challenges of the young coming into adulthood, national origin prejudice, the squalor of the Manhattan slums, and then some.

Yes, it sounds like several D.W. Griffith silent screen potboilers rolled into one — but it is not. So how does this play maintain a consistently dynamic and believable dramatic flow, and make its points with an uncanny naturalism throughout? Some might call it genius, and they might indeed be correct.

The action of the play takes place between 1915 and 1918 in The Bronx and New Rochelle and concerns Anita Hoffman, a willful young woman from a family of means. The era evokes images of Judy Garland in Meet me in St. Louis, or Betty Grable in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, or even Barbara Streisand in Hello, Dolly! — but Mayday! Mayday! shows the era as one on the brink of grave changes with monumental long-term repercussions, all of which are still with us today.

My attempt below to render a brief synopsis of this play cannot do it justice.Mayday! MayDay!‘s abundant merits are to be experienced while being viewed on stage.

The play opens on the afternoon of April 30, 1915, during a planning meeting at The International Garden Society, where a new stone garden path has just been laid. Anita enters and disrupts the proceedings by asking, “Why has the earth been covered over?” This leads to a discussion of the impending besmirching of the planet by the explosive increase of fume-emitting gasoline automobiles. We are introduced to Anita’s mother, the proper Mrs. Clarissa Hoffman, the always delighted family friend, Mrs. Emily Codman, and Dr. Nicholas Butler, President of Columbia University, who is also the uncle and guardian of Anita’s long-term intended, Clarence Butler.

Anita learns that Clarence, a somewhat immature 23-year-old with notions about being a journalist, has sold his bicycle and, to Anita’s horror, is excited about showing her the world in a gasoline-powered Stutz Bearcat. He is also excited about his departure the next day for England on the Lusitania, to hand-deliver prize plant specimens to the Royal Horticultural Society and the opportunity to write about the war in Europe. Aware of German U-boat activity, and as a ploy to keep him safe, Anita convinces Clarence that they should wed immediately. Clarence agrees, and gives his Lusitania passage to his friend William.

Clarence has a new friend, Fred Swab, who calls himself “a Steel Man” and embodies just about everything Anita detests. Clarence decides he will work in advertising, and Fred is his client. Fred champions “progress,” while making a great deal of money. Fred apparently befriends the impressionable Clarence in order to have access to Dr. Butler, a friend of President Wilson from the days when Wilson was President of Princeton University.

It is now May 8, 1915 and Fred enters to announce that Lusitania has sunk—and with it William, who used Clarence’s passage. Moreover, cargo that was labeled as peaceable food-for-relief turned out to be armaments being illegally shipped by Fred, the war-profiteering industrialist — apparently with the sub rosaknowledge of President Wilson. Fred wants covert compensation for his losses, and prods Dr. Butler for a letter of introduction to President Wilson.

Fred finally persuades the newlyweds to join him on an auto excursion to Manhattan that takes them through the squalor of the slums, further enraging our righteous-hearted heroine, who tries to convince Fred to fund a foundation to assist slum children.

Further examples of inequity, malfeasance, and public manipulation come up in the course of the action, culminating in Anita’s husband working for the government’s propaganda office, where he is formulating a campaign of hatred against Americans of German heritage (the Hoffmans and Fred Schwab are of German descent).

Clarence enlists in the army, sees action, and ends up shell-shocked in an English hospital. Seemingly recovering, he cables back to Dr. Butler to cable him $500 to purchase an airplane — his latest impulsive enthusiasm.

The play closes with Anita, having seen her world repeatedly go off the rails into selfishness, indulgence, criminality, and war-fever, rocking her recently born infant son in her arms and declaring, “Women of world, we who care for it, we will be a force to reckon with! Hush, I will keep you safe, your future is in my hands!”

The character of Anita brings to mind the committed (and often irritating) women and men who are appropriately fired up regarding important issues, but when you brush up against them you sometimes wish they would tone down their relentlessness (or just plain shut up for a while). Then again, it was such abrasive and relentless people, reformers both known and unknown, who contributed to the end of slavery both here and abroad, the slowing of runaway “development,” the establishment of child labor laws, etc. A good example would be Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the effective labor agitator–who was never nominated for Miss Congeniality.

Ms. Walkonen displays amazing skill in weaving all elements of the story into a cohesive and believable drama: the business manipulations that do away with the early and practical electric car; the sinking of the Lusitania; seekers of compensation for covert war materials lost at sea; President Wilson’s complicity; the commencement of World War One; the propaganda campaign against people of German Heritage (“the Hun!”); women’s protest against participation in World War One; the dire state of Manhattan slum children; the cold-heartedness of solid-citizen businessmen who used the word “progress” as a cover for opportunities to profiteer; wholesale disregard for the environment; women’s right to vote; the confining societal “role” of the woman; and more. These issues get broached, just in the process of the drama itself, and never are experienced as artificial plot devices.

Ms. Walkonen is a published poet and the play’s dialogue clearly shows a sensitive ear for how people really speak. She makes antiquated 1915 turns of speech seem utterly natural.

Though the players were “on-script” for a portion of this reading, Mayday! Mayday! was very close to being a complete production, with period attire, skillful direction by Ms. Walkonen and a simple functional set. With music by Charles Hipser, lighting by Emily Tomusko and sound by Molly McMurray, it would be a small step for the entire production to be expanded into a fully fleshed-out production.

Chloe Delaitre as Anita Hoffman and Will Forber as Clarence Butler, her beau and husband, are both students at Sarah Lawrence College. Both are able and seasoned young actors. Ms. Delaitre competently melds the likeable, sympathetic, and abrasive elements of Anita’s character, which is no easy feat. Will Former, with the solid good looks of what used to be called a “matinee iidol,” sweetly exudes archetypical boyish naivety. Kathi Mangan as the ever-proper Mrs. Clarissa Hoffman, Anita’s mother, delivers her haughty speeches with a marvelous kind of flat-toned halting staccato that brought to mind a somewhat democratized version of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, transported to 1915. Robert Molroy as the professorial Dr. Nicholas Butler, Clarence’s uncle and protector, was perfectly cast as a mediator among the personalities. B.J. Markus as Fred Schwab, the businessman and profiteer, did a fine job at being just like the men I once worked with on Wall Street: persistently selfish and self-centered, argumentative, and single-mindedly repulsive. Vera Salter, as Mrs. Emily Codman, the ever-enchanted bubble-headed British friend of the family, is a highly skilled comedienne, punctuating the action with totally mal-appropriate, oblivious, and often hilarious digressions.

I highly recommend Mayday! Mayday! It will be presented again on Monday, June 20, at 2pm at The Gene Frankel Theater, for a thoughtful and entertaining theater experience. – Jay Reisberg

Reserve free tickets at www.planetconnections.org or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York’s Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.
Culture Catch review of Mayday!Mayday!

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