Patricia Randall, Peggy Cowles, and Susan Jeffriesin The Ladies of the Corridor
Patricia Randall, Peggy Cowles, and Susan Jeffries
in The Ladies of the Corridor
Long before Stephen Sondheim wrote "The Ladies Who Lunch," Dorothy Parker memorialized the chatty crowd in The Ladies of the Corridor, which she co-authored with Arnaud d'Usseau. It's one of the caustic Parker's two produced plays -- it opened 50 years ago in 1953 -- and, taking into account the sharp-tongued critic's regular assaults on other plays and players of the period, it's not quite the air-tight accomplishment she might have wanted to keep retaliatory attacks at bay. Yet it's more than a forgettable curiosity.

Well known for spending her declining years at Manhattan's Volney Hotel, once located at 23 East 73rd Street, Parker must have been taking some very detailed mental notes while drinking herself to death, because she convincingly gets the details right on how the well-heeled widows and divorcées occupying rooms in such surroundings squandered their pre-feminist days. Sharing her observations with d'Usseau, Parker reports on afternoons spent at the movies and mornings passed writing to absent children, as well as not infrequent instances of silent tears and kleptomania.

In a two-act drama divided into many scenes, Parker and d'Usseau concentrate on three particular case histories. Recently widowed Lulu Ames (Susan Jeffries) has sold her house in Akron and moved to New York to be near her slick son (Patrick Boyd) and chilly daughter-in-law, Betsy (Dawn Evan). Shortly after arriving, she encounters the younger Akron ex-pat and book shop owner Paul Osgood (Kelly AuCoin) and begins a September-July romance during which she literally lets her hair down and starts wearing pink frocks. The wheelchair-ridden Grace Nichols (Peggy Cowles) counts on her taciturn son, Charles (Ron Bagden), to do her daily bidding and, though circumspect, doesn't approve of his plan to resume teaching. Mrs. Mildred Tynan (Patricia Randell) lives on frequently delayed checks from her estranged husband while failing to hide her alcoholism from the other occupants and the hotel help, all of whom she regularly serenades with loud song.

These ladies of the corridor -- the dramatists take the phrase from T. S. Eliot's "Sweeney Erect" -- interact with friends like interior decorator Connie Mercer (Jo Ann Cunningham) and the opportunistic bellhop Harry (Jason O'Connell). But as their stories disclose melancholy aperçus not unlike those that dot Dot Parker's vaunted short stories, nothing unexpected happens, however melodramatic the action. Once it's established that Lulu Ames is concerned with the age difference between her and Paul, the jealous nagging that ensues could hardly be less surprising. Once Grace Nichols understands that the prissy Mama's boy Charles means business about leaving, her threatening reminders of his questionable past behavior at a boys' school are entirely expected. And once it's noticed that Mildred Tynan's room with the Murphy bed also features a big window, her eventual misuse of that window will be registered by any intelligent theatergoer.

Had Parker spotted these glaring, blaring lapses in the works of others, she would have had harsh words to say about them; remember, this is the gal who once viewed a Channing Pollock work, The House Beautiful, and deemed it "the play lousy." Although Ladies of the Corridor isn't exactly a play lousy, its predictability is rarely leavened by the famous Parker wit.

The best lines go to Connie Mercer, who's also the only working woman to call the Hotel Marlowe home; therefore, she may be taken as the Parker surrogate. Connie's the one who says that her affair with a younger man made her feel "young again" but that the episode terminated when "he found somebody who was young for the first time." Complaining about a particularly bad day at the office, Connie also refers to "one of the daffodils" as having had a breakdown. She's talking, of course, about a homosexual co-worker and using a word now defunct (it was used unforgettably in the Oscar-winning Al Dubin-Harry Warren song "Lullaby of Broadway"). Otherwise, less is antiquated about Ladies of the Corridor than might be expected.

Where Parker and d'Usseau do their best work is in citing the nuances of relationships. They are deft at suggesting how the Marlowe's denizens don't so much enjoy each other's company as join forces out of loneliness. When Lulu Ames is visited by her old Akron pals, the Linscotts, Parker and d'Usseau tease out the phrases with which the couple derogate their friend while seeming to applaud her. The authors also detect the way that Mrs. Gordon (Libby George), who makes a game of shoplifting, remains close-mouthed when Mrs. Lauterbach (Carolyn Seiff) expresses concern over her missing blue ashtray. And they notice the barely concealed disdain that the occupants have for those who serve them, along with the disdain that's shot right back at them from behind solicitous smiles.

Perhaps the heavy panting that Parker and d'Usseau wrote into their play might have been undercut had director Dan Wackerman, who's trimmed the original script somewhat, advised his cast to be subtle in their performance style. A number of the actors energetically chew Chris Jones's appropriately just-this-side-of-seedy scenery. Susan Jeffries is the most culpable of them all, ranting at Kelly AuCoin's nicely-done Paul Osgood when the latter starts finding his inamorata too much to handle. Patricia Randell doesn't minimize Mildred Tynan's drunkenness, either, although she amuses when Mildred falls to the floor of the lobby and tells Harry, "I like it here."

Ron Bagden hasn't thought to tone himself down when what Charles has repressed for so many years bursts to the surface, and Dawn Evans makes Betsy Nichols's lack of interest in her mother-in-law as plain as the smirk on her face. Peggy Cowles, however, keeps something of a tight rein on Grace Nichols's hauteur. Jo Ann Cunningham, looking especially striking in the evening ensemble that costume designer Amy C. Bradshaw has handed her, acts with the proper smart edge that Parker probably hoped she had on days she was tossing off outrageous remarks like "I was too fucking busy, and vice versa." Of the others, Jason O'Connell, Susan Varon as a maid who knows when to keep her mouth shut, and Libby George in two juicy smaller roles keep up appearances.

Before the play begins and between the dozen or so scenes, Wackerman has had the bright notion to play recordings by Mabel Mercer (deceased) and Barbara Carroll (still very much alive and still performing), both of whom the ladies of the corridor might have caught in East Side night clubs just south of their sad digs. Parker and d'Usseau may have had trouble steering away from cliché developments in their busy Ladies of the Corridor plot, but as far as details of character are concerned, they have a sure sense of the ladies who bunch.