It doesn't take many examples to prove that context is important. I find this is especially clear when I look at movies made in the 1950s versus movies made about the 1950s. If they are too similar in appearance, the latter can appear to be a satire of the former. Having said this, Julie Kramer's adaptation of Rona Jaffe's novel The Best of Everything, now playing at HERE Arts Center, does an excellent job of showing why certain aspects of the 1950s should stay right where they are: in the past.
In 1958 author Rona Jaffe wrote a controversial book called, you guessed it, The Best of Everything. Watching its stage adaptation makes it easy to see why people were shocked at the time. The references to virginity, affairs, and abortions were more than enough to make people uncomfortable in the '50s, or even today, if you're in certain circles. The book became a film starring Joan Crawford in 1959, and Julie Kramer, who also directed, adapted the book for the stage with the help of actor Amy Wilson, who plays Miss Farrow.
This collaboration between Hyde Park & Lafayette and 95WordsPerMinute shows the day-to-day lives of a group of women without making them into caricatures. Of course, there are some fantastic characters played by some great actors, and Brenda (Sas Goldberg), Mary Agnes (Molly Lloyd), April (Alicia Sable) and Gregg (Hayley Treider) are all easily imaginable as personalities from that time and place. However, as the story progresses, more is revealed about each of their individual lives, and the easy assumptions about who these women really are begin to crack and chip away.
This is where the inevitable Mad Men allusion comes in. I am not the first person to say this, but I was reminded of Don Draper and the first show that complicated what I used to write off as pure sexism. The thing that makes Mad Men a great show is that the characters are so well-developed that they take the stereotype that they seem to embody and complicate it with altogether human behavior. Though this play does not quite achieve this, which is understandable given its 90 minute running time, it shows these women to be more than the easily classifiable "types" they first appear to be.
The character of Caroline, well-played by Sarah Wilson, is our protagonist, though we do get to hear the other ladies' stories through her friendship with them. A Radcliffe grad with a passion for books, and a recently broken engagement, Caroline is trying to make something of herself at Fabian publishing house. Wilson's carefully nuanced performance gives Caroline the naivety to be a believable character from the '50s, but balances it with the brains and drive to make her stand out from the rest. She is sort of a proto-feminist heroine, one who is not quite ready to give up on a male-driven society altogether, but someone who is not willing to be underestimated on account of her gender.
There are also men in the play, of course, and Tom O'Keefe plays most of them, though Jordan Geiger's Eddie is his own man, so to speak. O'Keefe's multiple casting is visually echoed with some fantastic 2D props that seems at first to speak to the way all of these men are virtually interchangeable in these women's lives. However, the play challenges this assumption as at least one of O'Keefe's characters is not a gentleman on paper, but certainly acts more like one than anyone else in the play.
All of this works quite well, though the production suffers from one inhibitive ailment. A novel is able to cover a great deal of ground, jumping from scene to scene without having to justify it to the reader or worry about moving and changing scenery and costumes in real-time. This show has some of the longest scene changes I have ever seen, which is a problem that I hope gets better as the run continues. These scene changes are disruptive to the energy that the actors achieve in the scenes themselves. If these transitions must be so lengthy, I recommend putting in some type of visual aspect to them, perhaps projections or even, as my friend suggested, '50s commercials.
All in all, The Best of Everything is a well-acted piece that gives you a glimpse into the rather frightening world that women encountered only 65 years ago. It isn't perfect, and I believe that the script could go through one more draft and become a bit more streamlined, but it is a good night at the theatre. So if you want to see a kind of Mad Men from the woman's perspective, then you should certainly head over to HERE Arts Center to see these "mad women."
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