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Theatre in Review: The Man of the Hour (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Matthew Sanders and Kathleen Littlefield. Photo: Charlie Figlow

The people at the Metropolitan Playhouse -- a group that really knows how to dig them up -- has disinterred a 1906 work by the writer-producer George H. Broadhurst. A forgotten figure today, his name nevertheless adorns the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street, still one of the jewels in the Shubert Organization's crown. The Man of the Hour ran 479 performances, an astonishing number for the time.

Too often, yesterday's blockbuster is today's stale potboiler, but The Man of the Hour, a political melodrama, makes a strong and rather engrossing case that there is nothing new in the world of city hall corruption. The title character is Alwyn Bennett, a wealthy, handsome young idler; at first glance, you half expect him to enter through the French doors, asking, "Anyone for tennis?" Instead, Alwyn is chosen to run for the mayoralty of an unnamed city by Charles Wainwright, a millionaire entrepreneur, and Alderman Richard Horigan, who runs a powerful political machine. Alwyn's reason for running: He wants to prove to Wainwright's niece, Dallas, that he isn't a dilettante. Wainwright and Horigan's reason for choosing Alwyn: They assume he will do their bidding, signing off on a sweetheart transportation deal that will keep the dollars flowing their way.

This is the main, but hardly the only, thread in a triple-decker plot that enmeshes a full gallery of characters. Dallas is engaged to Scott H. Gibbs, an on-the-make financier who is Wainwright's protégé and who stands to become a millionaire if the deal goes through. Gibbs, at Wainwright's behest, has invested most of Dallas' fortune in the deal; if it doesn't go through, she will become a pauper. If that isn't enough to make Alwyn play nice, there is always the dossier Horigan produces, showing that Alwyn's father cheated the city government on a number of building projects. Meanwhile, Dallas' brother, Perry, chases after the pretty, impecunious Cynthia, who is one of Alwyn's secretaries. Following the fiscal disgrace of Cynthia's late father, her brother mysteriously disappeared -- and if you don't think he is going to turn up in time to blow the plot wide open, then I don't know what you've been doing with yourself all your life; you certainly haven't been going to the theatre.

Broadhurst may not have been a talent for the ages, but he was sturdy dramatic carpenter, and, after a first act (of four) that rather laboriously sets up the players and their various positions, The Man of the Hour moves with the pep of an early 20th century version of The Good Wife. The twists come thick and fast, climaxing in a pair of city hall committee rooms on the day of a crucial city council vote, with blackmail, deception, and overheard conversations all contributing to the black-hearted fun. For all the sophistication with which he manipulates his plot, Broadhurst was a purveyor of melodrama, pure and simple. Alwyn's virtue is never in doubt, and Wainwright and the more colorfully written Horigan are mustache-twirling villains of the old-school. Still, if you have a taste for the amusements of a simpler era -- as I do -- The Man of the Hour makes for a lively couple of hours.

Metropolitan Playhouse is far from being the slickest company in town. Its design budget is extremely limited and its casts can sometimes be distressingly variable. Under Leonard Peters' direction, Eric Loscheider's Alwyn takes too long to reach his manhood and Ashley Springer seems at a loss, rather understandably, as to how to animate a stock male ingénue role like Perry. But Bill Tatum oozes an entitled sense of corruption as Wainwright, Matthew Sanders presents an assuredly false front of virtue as Gibbs, and Kelly King's Horigan amusingly revels in chicanery, doing a little Rumpelstiltskin-like dance when plotting nefarious deeds. On the side of virtue, Kathleen Littlefield suggests that there is a working mind behind Dallas' porcelain beauty.

Even with its obvious limitations, companies such as Metropolitan Playhouse do us a favor by providing some continuity with the theatrical past. The Man of the Hour suggests that the business of running a city was in 1906 subject to the same ills as in 2015. It is good enough to make you wonder what else in Broadhurst's extensive portfolio might prove playable. -- David Barbour

(9 March 2015)

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