Spotty Play for 'U.S.A.'; Vital Dos Passos Style Eludes American Century

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 30, 2006 | Go to article overview

Spotty Play for 'U.S.A.'; Vital Dos Passos Style Eludes American Century


Byline: Jayne Blanchard, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"U.S.A." is a play without a country, a hectic pastiche of the first two decades of the 20th century that fails to capture America's conflicted identity or the radical, restless spirit of writer John Dos Passos.

As a novel, "U.S.A." is a sprawling masterpiece, written in the jittery style of jazz and capturing the enervating tenor of early-century America. Consisting of three works "The 42nd Parallel," "1919" and "The Big Money" Mr. Dos Passos' 1938 epic portrayed an America unmoored from its founding ideals, festering with corporate greed and materialism, indifferent to its poor and disenfranchised workers.

Mr. Dos Passos' fiery and immediate trilogy was acclaimed by the likes of Jean Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway. "Wasn't Dos Passos' book astonishingly good?" the latter wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, although the Hemingway-Dos Passos friendship would sour after a political dust-up in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Mr. Dos Passos' prose has fallen out of favor, but in his time he was considered a brilliant writer, important enough to make the cover of Time magazine in 1936.

As a play, "U.S.A." is a curiosity, intermittently fascinating but more a theatrical experiment than anything else. In 1959, Mr. Dos Passos collaborated with playwright and adaptor Paul Shyre, who later went on to write the Will Rogers one-man show for James Whitmore. Rather than employ a cast of thousands, Mr. Shyre settled on a cast of six to capture both Mr. Dos Passos' unconventional writing style and the clashing, layered portraits of Americans from 1900 to 1929. Both the book and the play defied convention, interweaving newspaper headlines, snatches of popular songs and biographies of famous figures with the fictionalized lives of ordinary Americans.

In American Century Theater's production, earnestly staged by Jackie Manger, we get the breadth of U.S. history, but little of its impact and emotion. The whole thing clips along as blandly as a newsreel and a badly projected one at that, as some of the sound cues and projected slides were delayed, throwing off the rhythms of the actors.

A show containing six actors saddled with portraying three decades of tumultuous social and political change under the constraints of a small budget means much schlepping of wooden cubes around the stage. …

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Spotty Play for 'U.S.A.'; Vital Dos Passos Style Eludes American Century
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