REVIEW: American Dreaming: Freud on Broadway, c. 1945

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The cast of Dream Girl at Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium.

If you’ve received recent emails or checked out the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (hereafter IRC) website—and if you haven’t, you should, because this company is one of Philadelphia’s most ambitious and out-of-the-box—you will have seen promotional images for Dream Girl, Elmer Rice’s 1945 comedy in which Georgina Allerton, a young woman with a drab daily life, imagines herself in far more interesting fantasies. The poster and photos are utterly delightful, evoking a just-post-WWII Manhattan full of glamour and possibility.

That’s no surprise because Tina Brock (who runs the company and also appears here, delightfully, in a small role) is as stylish a director as one could hope for.

Some of that style is on view in Dream Girl, but the net effect is disappointing. Seen here, it’s a three-fold problem. The play itself, though not without some intriguing ideas, is fusty; perhaps to compensate, the production is overly heightened. Most damagingly, the St. Mary’s Church space, visually appealing, is so cavernous and echoey that it’s virtually impossible to see and comprehend the action.

Too bad, because there are fascinating elements to consider. At a time when other American writers were largely fixated on the “American Dream” mythology of success, Rice ponders dreaming on a more Freudian level—as an expression of the repressed self. In this, Dream Girl is in line with Moss Hart and Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark, and even more directly, Thurber’s story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” (Rice acknowledged the latter as an influence.)

Many will know Mitty from its famous 1947 film, a showcase for the antics of Danny Kaye. That’s how I knew it, certainly. Frankly, I’ve had a lifelong aversion to Kaye—even as a child, I thought he was finding himself ever so much funnier than I was. He was working too hard and too obviously to land the humor.

A similarly frantic tone takes hold here in Dream Girl, where I think it too often derails Brock’s really good ideas. For example, she has cast Georgina (Brittany Holdahl) and her sister, Miriam (Anna Pysher), with actors who are astonishingly alike physically. The implication—that they might be doppelgängers—is a layer of fragmentation that Rice likely didn’t imagine, but it fits. It also reinforces the stylistic notion of Absurdism that is an IRC staple. Yet in the end, not much comes of this, as the production’s tone takes a less thoughtful and more farcical approach.

Broad farce also overwhelms what to me is the play’s most poignant theme—and indeed, a core issue in several of the works where America begins to flirt with Freud. That would be the unanswerable question of whether Georgina is more her “genuine” self in her daily life as an adventure-free working girl or in her fantasies, where she’s glamorous, risk-taking, and personally and romantically fulfilled.

I’d love to see this latter idea truly anchor a production that could also explore more deeply questions of female roles in the socially rigid late 1940s, when women who briefly held together our workforce in jobs that gave them real opportunities were expected once again to recede into the background.

But though IRC’s Dream Girl hints at all this, it’s ultimately the broad comedy that engulfs it. The ensemble cast certainly follow through on that tone—it’s consistent throughout—but I don’t think it hits the mark. In any case, the whole thing gets swallowed up in the space.

Still, there are good reasons to see the show. Rice is an important but now largely forgotten writer, and I love that Brock and company champion him here. You’ll likely not have another opportunity to see Dream Girl—even the film version, starring a very well cast Betty Hutton, has pretty much vanished.

In any case, you should absolutely consider seeing the next two shows on IRC’s season: Betty’s Summer Vacation and Come Back Little Sheba. Brock is the only director I know audacious and imaginative enough to combine Rice, Christopher Durang, and William Inge in a single season! (The next two shows will also very likely be presented in more conducive spaces.)

In the meantime, what we have here in Dream Girl is, perhaps, closer to a dream deferred than a dream come true.


Dream Girl plays through February 24. For more information, visit the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium website.

 

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