The flouting of social convention and the overthrowing of tyranny are both enduring comic themes, and they are delightfully blended in Harold Brighouse’s “Hobson’s Choice,” a sturdy, rarely seen 1915 play being capably revived at the Atlantic Theater Co. In full command of David Warren’s warm-hearted production is Martha Plimpton, who gives an effortlessly radiant performance as the pragmatic daughter of a Lancashire tradesman who refuses to accept the life of spinsterhood and filial oppression she seems doomed to, and proceeds to rearrange the destinies of everyone in her orbit to suit her sensible plans.
The comfortable tyrant in Brighouse’s Lancashire-set comedy is Henry Horatio Hobson (Brian Murray), the proprietor of a bootmakers shop who is happy to let his stern, sharp-witted daughter Maggie (Plimpton) run the house and the business as long as he gets full credit, plenty of time to visit the local pub and all the respect he fully believes is his due.
At 30, Maggie is well past the marrying age, as her father laughingly informs her, but the tight-fisted Henry would be happy to unload his other two charges, the more expensive and less efficient Alice (Amy Wilson) and Vickey (Katie Carr) — until he’s told that a marriage settlement of a considerable sum will be required from a man of his stature.
The fierce clash between the forceful personalities of father and daughter is somewhat underplayed here: Murray, an actor of robust comic gifts, is nevertheless a bit refined and reserved for this resplendently earthy character. With his Victorian-era stage voice, which can roam freely from a piteous whine to an outraged rumble, Murray easily reaps heaps of laughs from Henry’s comeuppance, but one is sometimes aware of the actor’s art more than the plight of this very particular character. (Maybe Murray, who is already in rehearsal for Broadway’s “The Crucible,” is a bit distracted.)
Plimpton, too, starts out more soft and amiable than she might; some of the charm of the tale comes from discovering how this tightly wound character — who’s got a little of Dolly Levi, Henry Higgins and maybe Leona Helmsley in her — has her hard edges rubbed away as events unfold. That qualification aside, Plimpton is thoroughly captivating here, deploying a fine Lancashire accent and droll wit to define this engagingly smart and practical woman, who refuses to bow to the strictures of her society when they come in conflict with her chances of happiness.
The scene in which Maggie peremptorily proposes marriage to the bewildered bootmaker who is the shop’s greatest asset is maybe as fine a comic exchange as has ever been penned, and it’s given its uproarious due by Plimpton and David Aaron Baker, as the dim-witted but deft-handed Willie Mossop. Willie’s amazement at receiving such a proposal from “the master’s daughter” is firmly ignored by Maggie, who also easy disposes of his prior entanglement with a girl of his class.
Some of the comic niceties of class and character are not entirely captured in the performances, but the cast as a whole does a creditable job of evoking the play’s distant milieu. Its sturdy comic structure and economically but distinctly drawn characters make for surefire laughs, and the pacing by Warren is mostly brisk and skillful. Wilson and Carr, as Maggie’s self-interested sisters, are daintily on the mark, and Jim Frangione’s Tubby Wadlow, the foreman in the shop, stands out among the smaller supporting perfs.
Laura Bauer’s costumes are handsome and apt, and if Derek McLane’s sets betray some compromise between authenticity and economy, they are effective nonetheless. Kenneth Posner’s lighting, particularly in the first act, is a bit on the harsh side, however; surely skylights were not yet in use in 1880 England?