The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

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Reviews - One-Third of a Nation

Reviewed by Erik Haagensen

MAY 02, 2011

Metropolitan Playhouse finishes its season, devoted to exploring stereotypes, on a high note with director Alex Roe's swift and vivid account of Arthur Arent's "One-Third of a Nation," a play created in 1938 for the Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper unit on the subject of substandard housing in America. Though full of carefully researched facts and figures and more than 120 characters, this presentational and frankly political drama bursts with life as it examines the history of New York City real estate and the social and health problems stemming from the slums. A nimble cast of 11 (the original had 25) delivers the show's still-relevant message—that everyone deserves a decent and affordable place to live—with force and conviction.

The title derives from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second inaugural address: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." The show begins with a tenement fire (Roe is remarkably successful in suggesting it in the tiny black-box space) and its aftermath, then jumps back in time to 1705 to trace the history of Big Apple real estate. We learn how Trinity Church received large land grants from Lord Cornbury, the English governor of New York, and leased that land to a small group of men (one being John Jacob Astor) who consolidated obscene wealth across generations by trafficking in land speculation. We discover the history of ineffective legislation intended to banish such ills as windowless rooms, lack of running water, improper ventilation, and unsanitary toilet facilities, all of which led to repeated cholera epidemics. Arent employs an unseen narrator, who interacts with an Everyman who bounds up on stage from the audience of his own accord, one Mr. Angus K. Buttonkooper. Fictional vignettes designed to give the politics a human face mix with a variety of real-life personages: congressmen, mayors, journalists, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats. Even a tenement gets to comment. The show ends with a stirring plea for federal intervention, noting the government's nascent success at the time in building affordable housing for the poor.

Roe's inventive production includes an evocative and immersive wall treatment (that he designed and built himself), projections on the floor stage-center, and imaginative staging that conjures a slogging climb up a tenement staircase or envisions a court battle as a slow-motion prizefight. The talented actors prove adept quick-sketch artists (characters rarely reappear) and are, happily, all on the same page of heightened theatricality that the script requires. Everyone gets a moment to shine, but particular standouts include a confident and commanding Teresa Kelsey, who even turned an unplanned tumble into a character-specific ad lib; Ben Gougeon, running the gamut from wide-eyed innocence to dark anguish; Meghan Hoffman, especially as a steely young wife refusing her husband's plea to have another child after losing two in infancy thanks to slum filth; and young Leo G. Gitelman, a Manhattan eighth grader who shows a versatility that belies his years. Holding it all together is the excellent Brad Fraizer as Buttonkooper. The only actor not to double, he gets the wisecracking little man down to a period T and plays well off J.M. McDonough's no-nonsense Voice of the Living Newspaper.

If the play's specifics are no longer current, it raises plenty of issues that are, including the greedy concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny few and I'm-all-right-Jack right-wing resistance to governmental solutions to social problems. My favorite quotation came from Nathan Straus, who in 1938 was the administrator of the U.S. Housing Authority, responding to cries of "socialism" from the moneyed interests about government-built housing: "There is no reform within my memory that has not been attacked as an invasion of private rights and as contrary to economic laws. There is usually the added comment that it's unconstitutional." Health care, anybody?

New York Times

A Depression-Era Protest Ripped From the Headlines

“That’s socialism!” an angry character shouts in “One-Third of a Nation,” a play written during the Depression and now revived by the Metropolitan Playhouse. “It’s unconstitutional!” yells another, the president of a mortgage company.

Those accusations, in response to suggestions that the government intervene in the free market, garner extra laughs from the audience, given the current political climate. Yet they also stir lots of emotions in a production that’s full of passion, at least until it turns preachy.

“One-Third of a Nation,” written by Arthur Arent for the Living Newspaper unit of the Federal Theater Project, was first staged in 1938. Part history lesson, part protest, the play uses a series of sketches to dramatize ghastly housing conditions and to condemn corruption, speculators and slumlords. Much of the script remains fresh, with a wry, invisible narrator and characters who step out of scenes to comment on the action, which traverses more than 200 years.

But after a highly effective hour and a half the story slows to focus on, among other things, legislation to finance public housing. What had been a depiction of humans in appalling situations turns didactic, and the final 45 minutes sometimes drag.

Still, the cast of 11, directed by Alex Roe, is always a pleasure to watch. Playing more than 100 characters, the actors deftly handle both comedy and tragedy, and change accents and roles with ease. Teresa Kelsey and Howard Thoresen are particularly skilled in their many parts.

Despite its dated segments “One-Third of a Nation” is a compelling look at the past as well as a tale with parallels to modern struggles. Time may have tarnished some of its scenes. But its cry for simple decency hasn’t grown old.