The 1931 premiere of Somerset Maugham’s “The Breadwinner” was so poorly received in Gotham — Time magazine dubbed it “a bag of parlor tricks” — that the play hasn’t been seen here since. As it turns out, that’s been our loss. The Keen Company’s revival blows the dust off a diamond, displaying the wit and tenderness of a script that demands rediscovery.
Far from a bag of tricks, the play bursts with theatrical styles, and uses all of them well. First up is satire: The curtain rises on four wealthy British teens, moping about the indignity of small allowances and playing tennis on a grass court.
Maugham’s vicious insight comes as the teens develop the theory that everyone should die at 40. “They were a dreary lot, that war generation,” sighs Timothy (David Standish) about his parents and their friends. His sister Diana (Margaret Laney) offers this wicked consolation: “Well, don’t forget that except for the war, there would have been a lot more of them.”
That’s a sharp way of skewering the arrogance of the young, and the adults prove just as shallow. Lolling about on sofas in unnecessary topcoats and jewels, they talk only of vacations or affairs they wish they were having. Luxury makes everyone ridiculous.
In Maugham’s hands, though, these vapid creatures are delightful. Their narcissism is so blissfully naive — and their dialogue so clever — that auds might expect an evening of light entertainment, guaranteed to make us all feel wiser than this silly family.
And then everything changes. Charles (Jack Gilpin), the titular breadwinner, enters to announce he’s leaving his job and his family. The weight of his uselessness has crushed him, and suddenly no one can afford to be shallow. This includes the playwright. Even though Charles has some withering one-liners, Maugham uses him mostly to transform the play into a sincere elegy for lost happiness.
The tone shifts slowly, almost imperceptibly. But by the final scenes when the family must face its sadness, “The Breadwinner” has become not only a masterful satire, but also a drama that urgently questions how we design our lives.
A pitch-perfect production matches Maugham’s achievement. Everything from the set — a sumptuous 1930s living room — to the children’s blandly similar tennis clothes capture a world that feels both charming and empty.
Director Carl Forsman shows a similar knack for balance. The early scenes spin out at top speed, with no pauses between lines or entrances. That’s the best rhythm for banter, and it lets Forsman later use hesitation to great effect. When Charles’ wife, for instance, can’t respond to his claim that they should separate, her uncharacteristic pause is thunderous.
Credit for such moments goes also to the cast, who make one of the most astonishing ensembles in recent memory. Every perf deserves praise, but three are especially strong. As Dorothy, Charles’ vampy sister-in-law, Jennifer Van Dyck elevates annoyance to high drama with preposterous sweeps of her hand. Her haughty confrontation with Charles — she’s convinced he’s leaving because he loves her — has so much physical and vocal detail that it could be taught as a master class.
As Charles’ daughter Judy, newcomer Virginia Kull navigates a heartbreaking road from utter disregard for her father to the realization that his wandering spirit matches her own. She and Charles share a polite farewell, yet Judy’s restraint chokes back oceans of grief.
Finally though, it’s Gilpin’s turn that embodies the successes here. As Charles, he exudes determination, moving steadily away from his own past. However, there are moments of wonder in his voice as he articulates his new philosophy, and his long, sad face conveys the regret of anyone leaving what they’ve known.
Like “The Breadwinner” itself, Gilpin’s perf exists between what’s funny and what’s devastating. It’s a gray space, but it’s dazzling to behold.