Maitland White, the protagonist of Philip Barry’s unjustly forgotten comedy You and I, has a blissful marriage, children on the cusp of adulthood and a highly remunerative corporate job. To all appearances, he’s the world’s most contented man, sharing a luxe existence with his loving family in the roaring days before the stock market crash of 1929. What no one around him knows is that Matey retains the great ambition of his youth. And, in middle age, that secret urge—to be a professional painter—is becoming increasingly insistent.
Barry (1896—1949), the American master of high comedy, wrote You and I while enrolled in George Pierce Baker’s celebrated English 47 playwriting workshop at Harvard. Premiering in 1923, You and I was the first of Barry’s 21 Broadway plays. It’s a vibrant script, insightful where human nature is concerned, witty and, in the end, heartrending. The Metropolitan Playhouse is doing Barry proud with this first New York City revival, directed by Michael Hardart and designed by Caitlynn Barrett (scenery), Christopher Weston (lighting), and Sidney Fortner (costumes).
Matey (Timothy C. Goodwin) exemplifies “the choice” described by William Butler Yeats in his poem of that name. “The intellect of man is forced to choose,” says Yeats, “perfection of the life, or of the work.”
Back when he was finishing college, Matey jettisoned plans to study painting in France. His means—or, rather, his family’s means—weren’t sufficient for him to wed Nancy (Elizabeth Preston) and study art full-time. Choosing home and hearth rather than a risky profession, he has spent his adult years climbing the executive ladder at a company that manufactures soap and toothpaste.
Early in Barry’s play, the Whites’ son Ricky (Aidan Eastwood) announces that, instead of enrolling in the architecture program at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, he’s going to marry Veronica Duane (Rebbekah Vega-Romero). When Ricky accepts a management-trainee position at his father’s company, Matey is stricken with midlife remorse for his own long-ago decision and, at the same time, dreads that someday his son will suffer the same regret.
“The most important thing in a man’s life is his work,” Matey tells Ricky. “For a while you need absolute independence—freedom to think [only about] ‘I and my work.’” Once married, he warns, “it’s strictly ‘You and I’—with the ‘You’ first, every time.”
Having failed to dissuade Ricky from abandoning architecture, the Whites realize they can put the money budgeted for his three years at the Beaux Arts to another use. Newly aware of her husband as a thwarted artist, Nancy insists that Matey take a holiday from business and devote himself to painting. She assures him they can economize, sell some assets, and alter their sights as needed. But once life is reordered and Matey’s alone with his easel, he must grapple with whether his talent is sufficient to fulfill his aspirations.
The Metropolitan Playhouse has made its mark reviving seldom-seen landmarks of 19th- and early 20th-century drama. Hardart’s accomplished staging features a balanced ensemble cast of endearing players, with three leads—Goodwin, Preston, and Eastwood—who lend just the right buoyancy to Barry’s witty dialogue. But what’s best is how they capture the poignancy of the playwright’s subtext, as well as of his text. The production is a leap forward for this valuable troupe, and it comes at a moment when companies devoted to the classics, such as TACT (The Actors Company Theater) and the Pearl, have disappeared.
Barry is renowned for his memorable plutocrats, like the Lord clan of The Philadelphia Story and the Setons of Holiday. The characters of You and I are merely middle class—albeit, upper middle class. But this early Barry effort presages themes, many arguably universal, which are significant to the playwright’s better-known works; and these characters speak the same deliciously urbane language as the ones Barry would create later.
When Ricky announces he’ll forgo Paris and architecture to marry Veronica, Nancy warns that, in time, he “may look on love as a kind of captivating robber, who chatted so sweetly, as he plucked your destiny out of your pocket.” And, when Ricky dismisses his father’s inspired doodles as “Dad’s foolishness,” she remarks that her husband’s artistic “folly” is “like the beating of clipped wings … longing for flight.”
If only such graceful, stylish talk could be heard more often nowadays—onstage and off! Perhaps, having started with the earliest of Barry’s Broadway efforts, the Metropolitan Playhouse will undertake others not recently revived. As a Barry character might say, that’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The Metropolitan Playhouse production of You and I runs through Oct. 7 at 220 East 4th St. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, plus Tuesdays Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, and Wednesdays, Sept. 26 and Oct. 3 at 7:30; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For information and tickets, visit metropolitanplayhouse.org/tickets, or call (800) 838-3006.