In the middle of the last century, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—producers, publicists, and prolific playwrights—were leading lights in the American entertainment industry. They are now remembered for writing Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history, and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their 1945 hit State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize and became a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That play is typical of the witty comedies with serious-minded underpinnings that Broadway audiences relished during World War II and after.
State of the Union revolves around Grant Matthews (Kyle Minshew), a captain of industry who’s being groomed to challenge incumbent Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. Super-wealthy from wartime profits, Grant is in a position to pursue the political interests that have previously taken a backseat to his business ambitions. He’s youthful but mature enough to inspire confidence; and he’s untainted by controversy or scandal (at least thus far) and, hence, a promising candidate.
The strategists for Grant’s assault on American politics are Kay Thorndyke (Jennifer Reddish), head of a newspaper syndicate in the heartland, and her star political columnist, Spike MacManus (Jamahl Garrison-Lowe). They’ve nearly convinced James Conover (Michael Durkin), the Republican Party’s premier Washington insider, that Grant is the man to break the Democrats’ four-term hammerlock on the White House. But when Conover gets wind that Grant and his wife, Mary (Anna Marie Sell), are estranged, and that Grant’s relationship with Kay isn’t merely platonic, his interest cools.
“The American people like to think of a married candidate as happily married,” Conover explains. “They want to see him and his wife together. … It’s an American tradition.”
Conover decrees he’ll only support Grant’s candidacy if Mary is conspicuously by his side on an upcoming cross-country trip (a 1940s precursor of today’s de rigueur “listening tour”). Grant, who doubts the acerbic Mary will cooperate, quips: “There’s no way of a man being elected President before his wife hears about it, is there?”
To Grant’s surprise, Mary boards the bandwagon and swiftly becomes an effective campaigner. Rediscovering the extent of their shared political and ethical values, the two rekindle lost ardor. But what’s good for the Matthews’ marriage is bad news for the political hacks promoting Grant’s presidential bid. Conover, Kay, and Spike are dismayed to find their candidate less malleable than anticipated. They never imagined a man who wants to be president could be unwilling to lie, connive, or sling mud; and they find it bizarre that he wants to “appeal to the best in the American people.”
Consistent with other Broadway comedies of its era, State of the Union has an enormous amount of exposition before things really get going. The exposition’s interesting enough, the initial action is engaging, and the dialogue is sprightly throughout. But two-thirds of the way in, the authors write themselves into a corner and end up relying on their leading lady’s excessive consumption of vino to get to the veritas of their slightly lame last act.
With a large cast and four changes of scenery, State of the Union is a costly proposition. What a boon that the Metropolitan Playhouse has figured out how to stage this almost-forgotten comedy on a shoestring. This resourceful not-for-profit company set a high bar earlier this season with its staging of plays by Philip Barry and Robert Ardrey. As directed by Laura Livingston, State of the Union isn’t on a par with those productions, but it delivers many pleasures, including four distinct, ingenious, and appealing interiors from designer Vincent Gunn.
Though Minshew and Sell are endearing as candidate and wife, the most noteworthy performances are by supporting players. Durkin and Jon Lonoff are especially well cast as a pair of power brokers. Linda Kuriloff offers the evening’s comic high point as a political spouse from the Deep South whose gimlet eye and unquenchable appetite for Sazeracs contribute to her ribald commentary on American politics.
Anyone weary of recent Washington shenanigans is likely to find solace in Lindsay and Crouse’s account of that city during the 1948 election. In their telling, it’s a moment of postwar euphoria, after defeat of the fascist threat from abroad and before the beginning of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition. And in this portrait of that election year, the businessman running for president fervently believes that “any candidate for any office who threatens world peace for the sake of a few votes—there’s the international criminal for you.”
The Metropolitan Playhouse production of State of the Union runs through March 10 at 220 East 4th St. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, plus 7:30 Tuesdays, Feb. 26 and March 5, and Wednesdays, Feb. 27 and March 6; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For information and tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit metropolitanplayhouse.org.