Revenge of the bourgeoisie

To update, or not to update?
That is the question facing directors today who wish to stage classic plays. Stay true to a classic's setting, period, costumes, and text and you risk audience indifference. Revamp a play and set it in South Central Los Angeles or on a futuristic space station, and you risk revising the meaning, tone, and diction right out of it.

The smart money usually is on leaving well enough alone. After all, if a play's a classic that means it ain't broke, so why try to fix it? The Dallas Theater Center followed this dictum to admirable effect last year with its superdelicious production of A Family Affair, a seldom-staged 19th-century Russian comedy classic by Alexander Ostrovsky.

The DTC takes the opposite tack with The Sternheim Project: The Unmentionables and The Snob, a world-premiere adaptation of two plays by early 20th-century German playwright Carl Sternheim taken from a series of his works collectively titled From the Heroic Life of the Middle Classes. Seeing parallels in these plays to America in the 1950s and 1980s, DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger sets The Unmentionables in the Eisenhower age and The Snob in the Reagan era.

The text, cleverly translated and reworked by Melissa Cooper, Paul Lambert, and Kate Sullivan, takes swipes at the conformity and keep-up-with-the-Jones' mentality of the '50s, while also bashing the greed-creed '80s. It's a smart idea that yields some fun moments, but curiously enough, this ambitious revision does more to obscure the play's themes than it does to illuminate them.

The Unmentionables gets this family saga rolling. It concerns a government bureaucrat, Ted Mask, and his wife Louise, whose bland but stable world is rocked by an odd incident. While watching a presidential motorcade, Louise's "unmentionables" slip down her legs and deposit themselves at her ankles. She deftly kicks up her heels and catches the errant panties, but by then the damage may have been done. Officials in high places who witnessed the incident could very well question the patriotism and political orientation of a man who would allow his wife to cause a scandal, Ted worries.

Ted's position is complicated by the fact that two onlookers, a devil-may-care Frenchman and a hypochondriac tailor, got an eyeful of the panties and immediately became enraptured by Louise. They let rooms in the Mask's modern tract-home in order to get "up close and personal, the ABC way" with Louise's panties. Ted is in danger of becoming a Molierelike figure of fun in his own house.

The Snob continues the story some 35 years later, and finds the Masks' son, Christian, on the verge of taking over a Wall Street empire. The only remaining obstacle to his ascendancy is his own middle-class past. He may lack one crucial qualification for becoming a blue blood: breeding.

As usual with the DTC, the tone of both plays is forcefully established by the sets, which literally pop out at you. Designer Christopher Barreca hits two home runs here.

The Masks' home in The Unmentionables is a Jetsons-style dream-space done in bright red, hot pink, and Astroturf green. With its multiple revolving doors, formica tabletops, dully glowing television, and state-of-the-art appliances, it is all bright, soulless efficiency. Through a central upstage window, you can see row upon row of similar houses marching into the distance.

In a deft transformation, the Mask home becomes Christian Mask's tony, black-lacquered office in The Snob. The set is dominated by a desk, not a kitchenette, and a computer has replaced the television. Glittering outside the gleaming office windows are the corporate towers of Wall Street, which Christian ascends during the course of the play, to striking visual effect.

Both plays spend considerable energy lampooning the talismans of the respective decades they mock: waxed beans, casseroles, and formica (the '50s), and designer fashions, junk bonds, and the bottom line (the '80s). While these jabs are mildly amusing, they cover territory that has been pretty well picked over by previous comics and social commentators.

The central point of the plays--how middle-class confidence, energy, masculinity, and resolution have become the dominant social and economic power in the 20th century--only peeks through the broader satire. This is the most interesting part of the play, however, and deserves more focus.

The theme is embodied in the dramatically towering figure of Ted Mask, superbly played by visiting actor Norman Browning. With his big, bluff forehead, bristling crewcut, and ex-jock's gait, Ted is the John Wayne of his circumscribed range.

A man of apparently limited intelligence and scope, Ted appears at the beginning of the play to be an easy target to pillory. But in one of the pleasant surprises of the play, Ted proves up to every challenge. He knows that if he succeeds in behaving conventionally, he'll earn his salary and his pension, and that's all that he wants. Brutish, unpretentious but self-confident and unscrupulous, he arranges his life to his precise specifications. Not only do the two suitors fail to cuckold him, Ted succeeds in "getting a little on the side" with the hot-to-trot next-door neighbor while running roughshod over his own wife. If heroism entails achieving one's ends in the face of difficult odds, Ted is a middle-class hero, and a great comic creation to boot.

The Snob features less of Ted, and is therefore not as engaging as The Unmentionables. Here Christian Mask makes the middle class' ascendancy complete, as he proves that the leap from bureaucrat to blue blood can be made in a single generation. The problem of his pedestrian bloodline is solved in one of the adapters' most dramatically satisfying strokes.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with local actor Bruce Dubose and DTC regular Charis Leos getting the most comic mileage out of their supporting roles.

In the end, however, I felt something like Gimli the Dwarf (or was it Legolas the Elf?), who observed in The Lord of the Rings that "those who break a thing apart to determine the making of it have left the path of wisdom."

Next time I'd like to see The Unmentionables and The Snob in their unbroken states.

The Sternheim Project: The Unmentionables and The Snob runs through February 4 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Call 522-8449.

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P.b. Miller