Rachel Crothers was the pre-eminent American female dramatist of the early 20th century. Not only did she see more than two dozen of her works performed on the New York stage, but she was among the first American playwrights to entwine the political and social problems of the day into her plots. Additionally, she produced her own works. It's doubtful that many people, even devoted theatergoers, remember Crothers, but Woman Seeking... should change that. This 10-year-old local theater company's Web site states that the group's aim is to "provide the theater audience with high-quality ensemble productions that showcase women in roles ... and often question their beliefs and prejudices about gender roles and women's place in our society."
In keeping with that mission, Woman Seeking… has revived one of Crothers's works, Expressing Willie. The play takes place during the Roaring Twenties, when the fashion of the era was to freely express one's opinions and hedonistic desires, which helps explain the show's somewhat mysterious title. Dan Jacoby is Willie Smith, a member of the nouveau riche, thanks to his work in the toothpaste industry. He has left behind his Texas upbringing and now lives in a mansion on Long Island with his mother, Mrs. Smith (Ann Parker). Willie has invited several members of the Manhattan elite to his estate in the hopes of cementing his status in high society.
Unbeknownst to Willie, his mother has invited his homespun ex-girlfriend, Minnie (Maria Silverman), for the weekend as well. Mrs. Smith's plan is to rekindle the flame between the two and distract Willie from a visiting predatory gold digger, Frances Sylvester (Simone Lazer). Among the other guests invited by Willie is the artist Taliaferro (Rhonda Ayers) and Dolly and George Cadwalader (Wynne Anders and Michael Frederic).
Ayers steals many scenes playing the free spirit who comes to Minnie's aid, not only helping her come out of her shell–which demonstrates Silverman's skills as a pianist–but also helping her land Willie on her own terms.
The entire cast does a great job: Jacoby portrays Willie as a lovable milquetoast, and Silverman makes for a charming naïf. Lazer, channeling Christine Baranski, offers a devilish turn and nearly runs away with the show with her character's riotously manipulative attempts to win over Willie. One final star merits mentioning: costume designer Jessa-Raye Court, who outfits every character in perfect period gear and, despite the likelihood of a limited budget, never seems to have opted for cheapness over quality.
Director Christine Mosere's production hits a few snags in trying to keep this dated material fresh. Some of the humor shows its age, and if lines were not going to be cut, she could have dialed down the trite dialogue. Also, while Silverman, who was also in charge of the musical arrangements, is outstanding on the piano, is it necessary for her to go on playing for as long as she does?
I also question the decision to include an intermission between the first and second scene of the middle act. The play would have run better had Mosere eliminated the intermission by devising an alternate means for a set change, and if she had curtailed the characters' long entrances and exits.
I am all for Woman Seeking... and its mission—highlighting women onstage and backstage, both from the past and the present. But why cast Akiva Penaloza as Simpson, a manservant, when she is so clearly of the opposite gender? It's not as if Willie stars an all-female cast. This type of stunt, small as it is, subverts Crothers's work when this production otherwise proves just how lasting and insightful it can be.