December 17, 2018

Tudor City on Stage: DAWN POWELL'S "BIG NIGHT"

Ad for opening night, January 17, 1933
In earlier posts, this blog has explored Tudor City's representation in the arts, via books, drawings, photographs, and the movies. Now we've discovered the enclave portrayed on stage in the play Big Night by Dawn Powell. 

Powell, caricatured by David Levine.
Powell, a writer often compared to Dorothy Parker, has many big-name fans. She was Hemingway's "favorite living writer," America's "best comic novelist" to Gore Vidal. Fran Lebowitz says "there is no other writer I could recommend more heartily." 

Big Night was Powell's first attempt at play writing. The entire play is set in the Tudor City apartment of Ed Bonney, an advertising executive, and his wife Myra, a former model. Ed's about to lose his job, and in desperation, invites a potential client over for cocktails. The drunken, sloppy party that ensues concludes with Ed pimping out his wife to the client. 

The Tudor City setting was no doubt meant to suggest the couple's diminished state. Although Tudor City was perfectly respectable, it was a long way from Park Avenue. Below, Powell's stage directions:

Scene: The Bonney's living room in the Tudor City section of New York City, conventionally furnished, walls in the inevitable pale green. In the center back is a door to the hall. To the right of this is a wide door to a serving pantry. This door is constantly held open by a chair what with people wanting ice or ginger ale or orange juice all night. . .  
Dawn Powell, stage manager Alice Parker, and director Cheryl Crawford confer. 
The play was a production of the Group Theater, the soon-to-be legendary ensemble that gave the world method acting. Big Night was directed by Cheryl Crawford (later a renowned theatrical producer) and starred Stella Adler (future acting school doyenne). Clifford Odets (future playwright) had a bit part as a doorman.

Director Crawford watches the cast practice cocktail-pouring and lap-sitting.
The Tudor City apartment set (what one can see of it) behind them.

The play was a thudding flop, running for nine performances. Critics called it "sordid contemporary realism" rife with "sodden detail" and "immoral, debauched characters." Robert Benchley in the New Yorker gave its only positive notice. "If unpleasant characters are to damn a play," he wrote, "O'Neill has been getting away with not only incest but murder all these years."

Dawn Powell had the last word: "'To be attacked as a menace to the theater was the first real sign that I had a contribution to make there.'' 

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