Many plays have been eclipsed by subsequent musical adaptations: “Green Grow the Lilacs” was bettered by “Oklahoma!” and “La Dame aux Camelias” by “La Traviata,” to name two. Judging by the Williamstown Theater Festival’s revival of Elmer Rice’s 1929 “Street Scene,” it, too, has been rendered passe by Kurt Weill’s 1947 operatic version.
Today, Rice’s dated tale of New York tenement life and death clearly needs the added dimension of music for its characters and their emotions to bloom. They don’t in a Williamstown production that’s handicapped by a skeletal set lacking in atmosphere, unconvincing direction and an unwieldy cast of more than 60 that’s top-heavy with actors who are seldom believable as 1928 New Yorkers.
The one scene in which the production does blossom comes via the music of poetry: Jewish Sam Kaplan (Thomas Sadoski) quotes Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” to gentile Rose Maurrant (Mary Catherine Garrison), the girl he loves.
Bigotry runs rife through the play, a fact of life on New York streets that Rice wasn’t afraid to dramatize. And the accents and period slang he wrote into his script are still evocative. But minus Weill’s wonderful score, the play seems obvious and pedantic, particularly when it telegraphs the murder of Rose’s mother and her lover by Rose’s father.
With its huge cast of characters and early attempt at bringing cinematic sweep to the stage, “Street Scene” is a hard nut to crack in a short rehearsal period. It relies crucially on ensemble playing and veracity of characterizations. They’re largely lacking here.
Rose, the play’s central character, is played too much like a squeaky-voiced, boop-a-doop ’20s flapper. As her mother, Jodie Markell looks too young and lacks personality. Sadoski is just fine as Sam, but it’s impossible to believe in Ileen Getz as his sister, good actress though she is.
So it goes with other characters and performances. The most welcome is that of Rocco Sisto as Italian music professor Fiorentino. He brings the production to life whenever he’s onstage.
Director Michael Greif and designer Allen Moyer have made a grave mistake with the production’s skeletal metal that reveals the interior of the tenement. Presumably the rationale was that it would allow the audience to see what was taking place inside the building. But because the set never suggests a period tenement, much of the flavor of the play is lost.
And when the stage is suddenly suffused with blood-red light and gunshots are amplified to sound like cannons during the murder scene, it’s easy to lose patience with the director.
A well cast and directed revival, rehearsed at sufficient length, might reveal “Street Scene” in a happier light. But given the size of the cast, that’s hard to manage. In theory, we can thank the Williamstown Theater Festival for such a rare revival of this play, but in practice it has little to offer.