Volume 18 • Issue 15 | September 01 - 08, 2005

THEATER

THE BREADWINNER
Connelly Theater
220 East 4th St.
Entering previews Sept. 6
Opening Sept. 10
212-868-4444

A breadwinner’s dilemma

Director feels kinship with character

By Jerry Tallmer

Tennis, anyone?

Photo by Carl Van Vechten
“The Breadwinner” playwright, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965).
“The Breadwinner,” a 1931 play by W. Somerset Maugham, starts out sounding and looking like a bunch of silly-ass young Brits jabbering away in spoiled small talk as they enter and exit and lounge about with tennis racquets under their arms – and then it suddenly turns into a cold hard look at the emptiness of a life of conformity, of grinding away at one’s job or profession, of endless providing for wife, offspring, house, cars, and, yes, that new tennis court.

“This morning,” says the breadwinner in question, a London stockbroker named Charles Battle, “I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it … For 12 mortal years I’ve been going down to the City [London’s Wall Street] in the same tube, I’ve spent the day buying and selling shares; for 12 mortal years I’ve come home every evening in the same tube. And the world was rolling on and on.”

This day, he has instead gone for a long walk and had some long thoughts. “Are you obliged to be so melodramatic, father?” asks snobby teenage son Patrick. What his father next has to say staggers Patrick – and daughter Judy, and wife Margery – to the core.

“Why?” asks Patrick.

“Because I’m bored with you,” Charles Battle replies.

For all his 33 years and half-grown beard, Carl Forsman, director of the Keen Company production of “The Breadwinner” that bows September 6 at the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street, looks not much older than Patrick Battle. It is, however, with Patrick’s papa that Forsman feels kinship.

“I think that this play,” Forsman said one morning last week, “rather than being about marriage, is about responsibility — and perceived notions of what one should be. Charles is battling his children’s, his wife’s, and society’s image of him.

“When I first read it I realized how much I identified with Charles,” Forsman said. “Back when I was 19 – 18, actually – and an Economics major at Middlebury College, in Vermont, my godfather ran the trading floor at Chase Bank in New York. And I wanted to be there. Not because I wanted to become rich, but” — with boyish enthusiasm — “because I thought it a cool job.

“I didn’t think about being rich until later – when it was too late,” he dryly added. “Like most middle-class kids, I never expected to be poor. It came as quite a shock.”

He did not go into the Chase Bank. Instead, freshman year at Middlebury, “like anyone else, I had a great theater professor, Richard Romagnoli – he’s still there – who showed me the way.”

Being poor along that way was correlative to becoming what Forsman is now, a director, an artist, who has unearthed and staged strong, subtle revivals of many long-neglected plays of the past – notably John Van Druten’s “Voice of the Turtle” and Thornton Wilder’s “Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” – while garnering an Obie or two and a batch of other awards in the process.

“I’ve been struck by the parable of this guy [Charles Battle] who makes this choice, so resonant for artists who’ve given up the life they’re expected to lead, sacrificed the life they were supposed to lead – to pursue something mysterious and unknown.”

It was Andrew Dickey, the Keen Company’s master electrician and one of Forsman’s best friends in college, who first brought the plays of Somerset Maugham to Carl’s attention.

“‘You’ve got to read them,’ Andrew said, so I did. Maugham wrote twenty-something plays. Only eight or nine are still in print, and of these nine, four are successful plays in four genres — a beautiful thriller, ‘The Letter’; a wonderful farce, ‘Home and Beauty’; a family tragedy, ‘For Services Rendered,’ which I’d like to do someday; and a comedy of manners, ‘Our Betters.’

“I was so struck by the range of this playwright whom I’d only known as a novelist. ‘Of Human Bondage’ is one of the saddest, most compassionate books I’ve ever read. Maugham, like Philip Carey [and Charles Battle] was trapped, by his stammer and his loneliness, a very lonely man” – also, as it happens, a conventionally married homosexual.

“Anyway,” said Forsman, “I started reading other plays of his, quite slowly, and two years ago found this one, ‘The Breadwinner,’ in another volume.

“It was done in London in 1931, an enormous success. It was then done here in New York, directed by, and starring, and slightly rewritten by A. E. Matthews.

“I have an American edition of it, which is markedly different, and I like it less. It takes some cheap shots at the wife. So the one we’re doing at the Connelly – the untampered one — is from the British edition.”

The secret is – Forsman doesn’t want to give it away, but he tipped his mitt, so here goes – this play is Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” inside out. “A Doll’s House” with a sex change. “The Breadwinner” is also – the present writer feels – a relative to a certain extent of Philip Barry’s 1928 “Holiday.”

Carl Forsman, born November 29, 1970, in Summit, New Jersey, is the son of Carol Jennings Forsman, a recently retired high-school teacher, and the late Dale Forsman, a Methodist minister.

The Keen Company, which Carl launched in 2000, is doing a season at the Connelly but is headquartered in the West 30s. He himself has lived for seven years in Astoria, Queens, “and I date our casting director, Kelly Gillespie.”

The players of “The Breadwinner” are Jack Gilpin as Charles Battle; Alicia Roper as wife Margery; Virginia Kull making her New York debut as daughter Judy; Joe Delafield, late of “Outward Bound,” as son Patrick; Bob Lunney, one of Middlebury professor Richard Romagnoli’s stars, as neighboring joke-cracking suburbanite Alfred Granger; Jennifer Van Dyck as Granger’s wife Dorothy; David Standish as their son Timothy; and Margaret Laney as their daughter Diana.

It is this young lady, Diana Granger, who offers to run away with Charles Battle; he paternalistically turns her down. There are those of us who might not have been quite that scrupulous.

“Yes,” said director Forsman, “and if you see this actress, I would not disagree with you. I made the temptation as strong as I possibly could.” One hesitates to ask how his casting director voted in the matter.


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