Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952) was the brilliant and prolific Hungarian-born journalist, novelist, and dramatist whose play Liliom was adapted into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (1945), the award-winning Broadway musical later adapted into an award-winning film of the same name. Molnár’s writing output (8 of his plays and novels Hollywood adapted into films in the 1930s), thrived in spite of his immigration to the United States during the rise of Nazism. His banning from Communist Hungary during the Cold War gave him even more cachet with the West. He settled in New York City and eventually died after a long illness.
Molnár’s plays continue to be performed globally, particularly in Europe and in the U.S. most probably because of his prescience about culture, human behavior, and the superficial veneers of economic and social strata that often govern our lives. His ironic twitting of middle and upper class hypocrisies and pretensions is well drawn. He writes satiric social comedy with intriguing twists and his plays’ themes often unravel the best and worst of cultural and social mores. Molnár’s Fashions for Men, currently running at The Mint Theater through April 12th, is no exception. The Mint Theater Company , which enjoys reviving the works of brilliant playwrights and plays that have not been revisited for decades, has made an excellent selection in choosing to elegantly stage this revival of one of Molnár‘s funniest social satires.
Fashion’s For Men evolves in three acts and director Davis McCallum has concisely weaved the production through each act so there are no seismic gaps in action that stifle and make the characters appear tiresome. The time flies and the audience remains involved because McCallum’s direction heightens the comic ironies; he has stirred the cast to engage us with their energy and authenticity (none of the actors is “trying” for laughs).
The play is an ironic look at the “fashionable” mores and values of and women in Budapest society, particularly the behaviors of Molnár’s apparently ridiculous protagonist who is set as an example for the rest of the characters. The beauty of Molnár’s work, and McCallum’s conceptualization, is that we understand that though the setting is the past in another city and country, the characters, themes and issues which continually pop up retain a timeless quality so we see a reflection of our own time in the characters’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, with perhaps a few exceptions. Act I and III take place in a haberdashery which is a clothing shop for men and women. Peter Juhász is its proprietor. Peter, who grows on our affections as Molnár intends (this development is exceptionally realized by Joe Delafield), is an appalling business man. Peter exemplifies the values that the “customer comes first” to the point of practically giving away his product and loaning money he doesn’t have to clients. He is the epitome of a “soft touch.” He is easy to beguile and is charitable to a fault. If someone tells him a “sob story,” he will be there to help whether they are truthful or not.
Molnár has constructed a character for all seasons to weather the storms of life with his great good will. He is the antithesis of the meretricious oligarchic corporate type and is a businessman we as consumers adore, because he is making no profit off us and indeed, is gradually going bankrupt because of financial mismanagement due to kindness and generosity of spirit. His wife Adele (a guilt-ridden, quixotic and unfaithful Annie Purcell who plays her with humanity), is disgusted with Peter’s lack of business “acumen” and wishes for another arrangement in her life.
Oscar (a fine performance by John Tufts), Peter’s “trusted” employee, emotionally seduces Adele and together they conspire to leave Peter in the lurch; they will not save him from the fallout of his inane money practices which are leading him into poverty. When Adele finally confronts Peter and both she and Oscar tell him of their plans and Oscar’s mishandling of 80,000 kroner which Peter entrusted to him, Peter is taken aback initially. But he quickly forgives them both and wishes them well. The effect is hysterical because his response by social standards is preposterous. Peter is truly following the tenets of love and forgiveness that all of us profess to try to uphold, but fall miserably short of when backed against a wall. No one is that good! We would be questioning Molnár’s logic if the situation weren’t so humorous and farcical.
As we watch the interactions between Peter, Oscar, and Adele (the lovers justify their actions and find fault with Peter), we note that Peter’s innocent, guileless nature has brought him to a two-fold ruin: his marriage is ended by an unfaithful, duplicitous wife and his career and life’s work have been destroyed because he blindly trusted Oscar who is a sweet-faced predator who exploited Peter’s kindness in a most foul way. We would understand Peter’s ire if he pulled out a weapon and threatened Oscar to a duel or litigation. But he is cheerful and forgiving. That absolutely beggars our imagination as Molnár intends.
Molnár has set up his protagonist as a standard bearer for human behavior. Though he appears as a fool, through him we measure our own souls and in that comparison, Molnár invites us to laugh as we note our shortcomings and hypocritical professions of “charity.” For here is Christian goodness incarnate: Peter is the mythic individual who is looking out for others even though it means sacrificing his own happiness. It is not lost on us that this situation is an improbability. What husband would be so forgiving? After all he is not a cleric or religious man; he is living the wonderful principles of faith in a culture that predicates “get what you can and if you harm folks, cover it up” and put your funds in impenetrable trusts.
Molnár encourages our self-righteous smugness. We are not so foolish to be duped as Peter has allowed himself. Certainly, we are sharper tacks than he. But in a wistful way we are reminded of a time when we believed in Santa Claus and believed in people. Peter is reminiscent of our innocence lost; in that he shines as a hero, and we hope the injustice of his being made bankrupt by the betrayal of his morally bankrupt wife and “finest” employee is avenged by the play’s end. Molnár and this exceptional production’s cast and director encourage us to root for Peter to win despite the the odds being 99 to 1 against him. Throughout this horrifically humorous situation, the playwright’s quips and ironies are prodigious and the actors (Delafield, Purcell and Tufts), manage to understate the humor which makes it funnier.
As Act I concludes with the betrayers “heading off into the sunset” with Peter’s money, there is the added uptick of a sub plot in which Peter may be saved from himself. It is a bridge to Act II. Employee Paula (a fine, versatile performance by the lovely Rachel Napoleon), has attracted a Count (an absolutely brilliant and very funny performance by Kurt Rhoads), who visits the shop frequently. The Count has befriended Peter and continually sends wealthy patrons to the shop in addition to being one of Peter’s best customers. To encourage Peter, he offers him a job to manage his estate; Paula will come as Peter’s assistant. The Count knows of Peter’s “milk of human kindness” weaknesses and plans to negotiate through them and still keep his estate running without any financial losses. Of course, Molnár has set up the situation and we can see the playwright smirking in the wings with what plot deviations he will allow these characters to perpetrate.
Act II results in the apex of this brilliant comedy. Peter runs rampant with doing good deeds and losing money; the Count is beside himself but cannot fault the man nor fire him. One example is he overfeeds the pigeons so that the Count wails, “They are too fat to fly.” In this act appears some of the finest, most comedic moments. In typical Molnár style, beautifully executed by McCallum and cast, as the heights of comedy are unleashed, through the well written phrases and crafted dialogue, there is an undercurrent of telling social commentary. Moral and ethical cupidity appear everywhere on the Count’s staff. Peter is a magnet for the predators that previously have been kept in line by the Count’s discipline.
At the estate (the setting of Act II), the complications increase. Peter and Paula look after one another, though Paula is infatuated by the Count’s money, class power, and his worldly sophistication. Peter doesn’t want to leave Paula alone with the Count whom he envisions to be a sexual profligate. The Count can’t find a moment’s peace alone with Paula without Peter breathing down his neck. And meanwhile there are further complications with Peter’s haberdashery and getting it out of the hands of the creditors. His situation may perhaps be worked out, and Peter might be able to get the store back. But this seems far from possible; for Peter will have to take charity from the Count, and he is proud; he never takes, he always gives. Also, the Count has to overcome his annoyance with this man who has messed up the smooth operation of his estate with his abject managerial do-gooding.
Will Peter be able to recoup his loses and pay off his creditors? Will Paula end up as the Count’s mistress, under Peter’s watchful eye? Will the Count marry Paula or use her? Will Peter be able to buy back his haberdashery? And what has happened to Adele and Oscar as well as the other individuals who were a part of their lives in Budapest? Act III is the reveal. The loose ends are tied in a resounding knot and there is a moral at the end that reaffirms our beliefs about the possibility of goodness and hope.
Molnár has created a diverting and unique plot and characters who represent a cross section of the human menagerie from the upper classes to the working classes. Once he establishes his unusual conflicts, he spins them in a direction we cannot anticipate and surprises us with his character’s changing responses: when we thought we knew them, he continually shows we do not. The reversals are intriguing; his white knight Peter for most of the play is a likeable child fool whose ingenuousness we come to admire and appreciate. By the end, we see that we may have misread him and Peter has more wisdom than we gave him credit for.
Perhaps our yearning to believe that things will come out all right is the stuff that makes life exciting, dramatic, and meaningful, for Peter lives in hope. It is a precious gift. Through irony and humor, Molnár reveals that trusting in the goodness of others in an idealized version and being duped and “doomed” for it is not the worst that can happen. Indeed, “what goes around comes around” if you have patience to wait for it. He intimates that the worst occurs when one’s innocence and one’s idealized version of themselves has been destroyed. Without that type of faith, the individual believes goodness and charity are a myth and that human beings are horrific brutes if given the chance. Each individual must decide for him or herself. Molnár has given us a blueprint, albeit a “foolish” one.[amazon template=iframe image&asin= 1559364866]