March 14, 2015

Why "Fashions for Men" Is Just My Style

Good guys don’t stand much of a chance in today’s popular culture, as evidenced by the popularity of the school-teacher-turned-drug-dealer series “Breaking Bad” and the beats-up-his-girlfriend-but-women-still-love-him rapper Chris Brown. Maybe that’s why I found it a relief to step into the more genteel world of the Mint Theater Company’s current production of Fashions for Men, Ferenc Molnár’s sweet comedy centered around a man who starts off good and—spoiler alert—ends up that way too.

As savvy theatergoers know, the Mint specializes in reviving works by playwrights who have been neglected or forgotten. The Hungarian-born Molnár, as the company’s always-invaluable program notes explain, was one of the world’s most celebrated playwrights during the first half of the 20th century, equally popular in Europe and in the U.S., where he moved to escape the Nazis. 

Before his death in 1952, nearly two dozen of Molnár's plays opened on Broadway, including his 1909 experimental work Liliom, the source for the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel, and Fashions for Men, which originally debuted in Budapest in 1917 and ran on Broadway fives years later.

The central character in Fashions for Men is Peter Juhász, the proprietor of an upscale haberdashery and a fast-track candidate for sainthood. Juhász extends credit to impoverished clients, is forgiving when cuckolded and bankrupted by his wife and one of his store clerks and pines silently for the shop girl who has her eye on the wealthy count who is Juhász's benefactor. But—spoiler alert again—it all works out in the end.

Director Davis McCallum confidently transports the production back to a Budapest steeped in pre-WWI innocence but not entirely naïve and a theatrical period in which all the story lines were wrapped up by the final curtain (click here to read about his approach).

Yes, it’s predictable, old-fashioned and, in parts, slow. But that’s all part of the pleasure of this show. There's no wink-wink irony and yet all traces of sentimentality are cut with apt doses of wryness.

As usual, the small Mint has put up a big, rich-looking production, with charming old-world sets by Daniel Zimmerman, spiffy costumes by Martha Hally (click here to read more about them) and some particularly witty sound effects by Jane Shaw. 

The cast is just as delightful. There’s not a laggard among the even dozen of them (the Mint is generous in casting too). But Joe Delafield deserves extra credit for navigating the tricky task of conveying Juhász’s determination to be a good man without turning him into a boring sop.

Equally good is Kurt Rhoads, who is wonderfully sympathetic as the count, turning a character who could easily be played as the butt of several jokes into a man who appreciates goodness, even when he’s falling short of achieving it himself.

And Jeremy Lawrence is an unabashed scene-stealer as a world-weary salesman who can express as much with a lift of his eyebrows or the purse of his lips as it might take a whole page of dialog to say.  

I saw Lawrence at the West Bank Café shortly after seeing Fashions for Men and, although I don’t like bothering actors, I couldn’t resist leaning over and telling him how much I had enjoyed his performance and the rest of the show too.

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