by Stephen Cedars · November 22, 2013
It's hard to live in New York City without thinking about money all the time. In a place overloaded with new fashions, trends and opportunities to shine, there's always some excuse to add a line or two to that credit card bill.
So if nothing else, Sidney Frances Bateman's 1856 comedy Self is fascinating for showing that, in this regard at least, NYC hasn't changed a whole lot. Even though its set in an era shortly before the railroads and second industrial revolution, and long before any world wars that would redefine the global economy, Bateman's New York is full of delightfully colorful characters who can't stop thinking about, arguing over, plotting for, and suffering because of money. The story follows the Apex family as they barter for the inheritance left to the young Mary Apex. She's a sweet, unintentionally vacuous heroine whose misfortune is to be surrounded by people who can't take care of their own finances but who are good enough at feigning compassion to wreak havoc on her simple desires.
But though the play offers some emotional beats – especially in the darkness that closes the second act – the plot mostly works as a structure through which Bateman can skewer the various attitudes of self-improvement through cash, all of which are equally unattractive by the time the play ends. Even the ostensible voice of wisdom, John Unit, portrayed in a ridiculous yet grounded performance by Howard Thoresen, is limited by his miserly tendencies. The charming performances all accomplish what Bateman intended: we enjoy these people even as we despise the way they view the world, which in turn might lead us to wonder in what ways we're actually different.
Though Metropolitan Playhouse might have chosen the play because its themes of debt feel so resonant today, it's all the more interesting because the larger themes come off as universal. Certainly, in keeping with their mission, they don't deviate from the style contemporary to Bateman's day. Period costumes, hyper-articulated delivery, and unironic melodrama are all over the place. That certainly comes with its expected issues: an over-long running time, a surplus of unambiguous stereotypes, and flights of fancy aplenty. But those are not necessarily obstacles, especially since they reflect a tradition of American theatre that's vibrant, unpretentious, and quite theatrical. Characters frequently speak to the audience in some of the play's most wonderful bits of language, and the style unpretentiously and wildly veers between heightened sentiment and unabashed slapstick. And Bateman delivers some rather unique glimpses into the time period, most poignantly through the way she subverts what we expect of Aunt Chloe, Mary Apex's black maid. All in all, the play offers a stylistic hybrid that is less a sign of imperfection than proof of a delight in theatrical possibilities even within a well-recognized formula. And most certainly, it's a glimpse into "where we come from" as Americans, to use Metropolitan's stated mission.
Director Alex Roe's staging makes great use of the intimate Playhouse, keeping the momentum fluid even as scenes have a tendency to drag because of the overwriting. The production does suffer occasionally from a failure to quite grasp the connections between Bateman's styles – the performances often feel disconnected, like they're from different plays – but most importantly, the play impressively delivers a nuanced examination of how human self-interest often works against our best interests.
Ultimately, Self offers a lovely antiquated picture of a New York too much like our own, all to suggest that money grubbing might have little to do with the city, and more to do with human nature in general. That the team at Metropolitan has delivered this message through a delightful few hours in the theatre is all the more impressive.