Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, whose Fashions for Men is now in a new production by the Mint Theater in New York, was hot stuff in the early part of the 20th century. A literary star in his native country, a hit on Broadway with plays in translation, and a source for numerous Hollywood films, he is today best remembered in the U.S. for Liliom, the modern fairy tale that Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted into the musical Carousel.
Molnár’s plays aren’t often revived these days. A 2014 production of Liliom by Beautiful Soup year was the first time I’d ever seen one on stage. Leave it to the Mint, then, to stage a fully realized production of a Molnár classic. The company specializes in resurrections of forgotten and nearly-forgotten gems by playwrights both obscure and well-remembered if seldom produced. Its new Fashions for Men is an old-fashioned pleasure through and through.
The action centers around a high-end clothing shop in Budapest around the turn of the 20th century. The moment the curtain slid aside, Daniel Zimmerman’s detailed and almost photorealistic set drew applause from the audience at yesterday’s matinee. (A second set used for Act II did too.) The flowered wallpaper, wooden cabinets, antique cash register, and boxes and drawers full of merchandise, all lit in a sparkly golden glow, bespoke a lushly-envisioned charm before a line was spoken.
From that moment until the curtain-call tableau, the story seamlessly creates a vanished world of aristocrats, strivers, lovers, and connivers, enlivened by fashionable hats, colorful handkerchiefs for every budget, and, to the misfortune of trusting shop owner Peter Juhász (a suitably sweet, clenched, and jittery performance by Joe Delafield), store credit. For Peter isn’t just trusting, he’s infinitely accommodating, intent on seeing only the good in everyone, never the wickedness. His generosity is driving his business towards bankruptcy and his personal life into chaos.
Comedy reigns as Peter’s oblivious niceness makes it excruciatingly difficult for his wife Adele (Annie Purcell) to tell him she’s running away with his top salesman, Oscar (John Tufts), who is himself always using the excuse of a “weak heart” to avoid fraught situations. Peter’s generosity of spirit practically blesses the duplicitous pair as they go, even as he learns that Adele has also swiped for Oscar’s new venture in Berlin the savings that Peter must rely on to save his business.
Peter is also blissfully unaware that the continued interest in his shop by his benefactor, the middle-aged Count (Kurt Rhoads), is just disguised lechery towards the charming young store clerk Paula (Rachel Napoleon), whose fluttery innocence is a veneer too. Eagle-eyed old salesman Philip (Jeremy Lawrence), the only one who seems to know everything that’s really going on, poses an occasional threat, but his function is mostly comic effect, and a counterbalance to Peter’s ignorance.
The busy but easy-to-follow plot then narrows onto Peter, Paula, and the Count. Act II takes place on a second, equally impressive set representing the office of the rich Count’s farm complex, where he and Paula labor amid stone walls and arched recesses to carry on their frustrated flirtation without Peter, who thinks he’s looking out for poor innocent Paula, finding out. A big secret is revealed, but at the second intermission, we have no idea how things are going to turn out in Act III. We do feel we’ve been transported back in time in more ways than one, though. Plays today almost never extend to three acts. But with its sharp performances, fast-paced staging, and engaging story this Fashions for Men doesn’t feel overlong and never drags.
Rather than using Benjamin Glazer’s original 1920s translation, the Mint’s artistic director Jonathan Bank has equipped director Davis McCallum and the cast with an updated text that helps the story crackle along smoothly and rapidly. The new script strikes a fine balance between the distilled dialogue of quick-twist comedy and the relatively naturalistic speech today’s audiences expect. The excellent cast makes the most of their clever lines to offer many moments of arch humor and subtle emotion. With the exception of a few inaudible lines from Napoleon’s Paula in the first act (she redeems herself later on), the actors nobly avoid the movie-mumbles. McCallum knits these together with his crafty staging to sustain a cinematically convincing atmosphere, and at the same time draw out the foundation of truth in Molnár’s story – a timeless one, as it turns out – of artfully exaggerated personalities, screwy if not quite screwball events, and the heights and depths of human nature.
Fashions for Men is at the Mint Theater through March 29.