Child's play

I don't know if it was apocryphal or not, but the story goes that toward the end of her life, playwright Lillian Hellman was asked after a speaking engagement why, considering that she'd taken up arms against all manner of social injustices throughout her career, she'd never explicitly endorsed the gay and lesbian rights movement. Ms. Hellman reportedly stared long with those imperturbable hound-dog eyes and replied, in that Marlboro-abraded voice: "The forms of fucking do not require my endorsement."

I think Hellman missed the point there, but if you're going to sail whistling past the mark, it's best to do it with that kind of brio. The fact is, her 1934 stage smash The Children's Hour cautiously condemned the social stigma that funeral-shrouded homosexuality, first by showing the damage that such a revelation could do to a career guiding children, whether it was true or not, and then delivering, under the table, the begging question: OK, if it is true, exactly what's the danger here? It was a backdoor endorsement, possibly by default, but it reflected the sentiment of her entire controversial career.

Ms. Hellman's modus operandi wasn't to uplift, but to scold, whether she was berating Americans to join the campaign against European fascism in Watch on the Rhine or expounding the idea that family hypocrisy can be parlayed into business ruthlessness with The Little Foxes and its Southern aristocratic prequel Another Part of the Forest. And although accounts of both her stage accomplishments and her anti-McCarthy activism during the '50s have been hotly disputed by posthumous biographers, the general theme that has ignited her legacy is how the personal can be used for political gain.

Perhaps Hellman's least "political" play is one of her later successes, 1961's Toys in the Attic, given a rare, spiffy revival by New Theatre Company. It addresses both the aforementioned "forms of fucking" -- in this case, incest -- as well as how their thwarting can lead to bomb-throwing in that most subtle and strangling of social systems -- the family. Yet there is almost as much maneuvering and gentle-faced deceit on display in this poor, orphaned New Orleans family as in the English monarchy of The Lion in Winter, reminding us that whether or not royal titles and leadership are at stake, positions of power are related to personal need and therefore rest largely in the mind. The Little Foxes was a condemnation of Southern mores and how they were implicitly connected to economic "necessities" like slavery; Toys in the Attic addresses greed, financial failure, and the way in which the expectations of adult brothers and sisters, unsupervised by an overarching parental presence and with feelings grown grotesque and outsized by the parents' absence, will hinge on the roles they played as children.

But Toys in the Attic also overplays the Southern Gothic card, recently much written about in this space. We can't blame this just on the sensibility of a different time; by 1961, Tennessee Williams' luminous career had just begun to slip into self-parody with the likes of Suddenly Last Summer, so Hellman, theatrically astute but also aware in very practical, political ways, cannot be excused for writing a drawling, couch-lounging, fan-waving, at times seriocomic look at sexual repression set near the end of a humid Louisiana summer. But New Theatre Company has amped up these aspects of the show and produced a superficial but brisk, undeniably entertaining piece of theater. The drama isn't lingered over self-seriously, and the comedy (of which there's a surprising amount here that was, I'll warrant, shortchanged in the original New York production and most succeeding shows) is spotlighted with tart and expertly timed delivery.

Hellman and New Theatre acquaint us with the vagaries of the Berniers sisters, Carrie (Charlotte Akin) and Anna (Julie Mayfield). They are middle-aged, single, lower-middle-class women who make payments on the same decrepit house in which they grew up. Carrie is flighty and fanciful, Anna perpetually disappointed and sensible; both grew up as caretakers of their beloved brother Julian (Jim Jorgensen), who has himself grown up as a victim of so much feverish attention. He is not only a dreamer, huffy and innocent, but also a schemer, and without much pecuniary sense; the sisters are always bailing him out with money or a proffered shoulder to rage on against the unfairness of the world. But this day he's returned home after much traveling with extravagant gifts, stories of impending wealth that he cannot explain, and a young, overly imaginative bride named Lily (a vampy, spacy, but well cast Linda Arsinio), whose mother, Albertine (Sheriden Thomas), is the wealthy, night-dwelling, disapproved-of matron in town. Almost everybody has an agenda and a shameful secret they divulge only when forced to, if at all, and although Hellman's script has too many strands to make a satisfying knot by curtain, we have been too busy lapping it all up like rapt soap-opera addicts to much care.

Toys in the Attic is just as much fun as it sounds, and all the more surprising, because the program lists two directors: co-stars Jim Jorgensen and Sheriden Thomas. To have this many characters cohabit in the tiny Theatre Too space yet still allow everyone to steal moments here and there is a triumph that belies the idea of two theatrical minds grappling over tone and pace. Either Jorgensen and Thomas were on the same page from roundtable readings, or one rose from the ashes after fiery battle, but in the end, who cares? The show boasts three dynamite female performances, starting with Sheriden Thomas, who walks off with the production every time she walks onstage. She's the real theater deal, one of those relaxed stage artists who can ladle out complex emotions without troweling on the mannerisms: just a glance conveys convincing dilemmas. Next up is Charlotte Akin in a fussier, more demonstrative lead turn as the hot-for-my-bro Carrie. Akin gets some of the big laughs as her initially dizzy character grows more caustic and vindictive (setting her spite ray for kill at rival and sister-in-law Lily), but earns them honestly, skating just up to the edge of caricature but satisfying herself (and us) with urgency rather than actorly arrogance. Last up, Julie Mayfield as the grimly stoic Anna could easily be lost between the impressions made by these two performers, but holds her own with either and, finally, flashes the play's most poignant, hopeful signal for escape from this claustrophobic hothouse.

I can't help but think co-director Jim Jorgensen could have cast a more appropriate actor than himself as Julian, the no-good prodigal brother. When the actresses manage (sometimes by just a hair, but all the more thrillingly for that narrow escape) to avoid camp, he overdoes it in the cocky and angry moments, but manages to pull back for affecting quiet talk as a newly rich man trying to relate to jaded rich woman Thomas as Albertine. Although he's the most distracting cast member, he still doesn't sink New Theatre's Toys in the Attic, which locates a skipping rhythm where lesser performers would've either dragged or stumbled through Lillian Hellman's sticky, insoluble Southern family situations.

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Jimmy Fowler

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