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Brian Murray in Hobson?s Choice
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Nothing suits a no-nonsense play like a no-nonsense production, and that's exactly what director David Warren gives Hobson's Choice, the 1915 Harold Brighouse comedy set in no-nonsense Lancashire, England. Here's a work with almost no conflict which, by sheer dint of forceful characters, retains its appeal decades on. The allure may actually be enhanced in our post-feminist era, since Hobson's Choice is about a determined woman's ability to shape the fortunes of the two most important men in her life (father and husband) and remain on good terms with both -- this, by the way, a couple of decades before Dolly Gallagher Levi grappled successfully with Horace Vandergelder in Yonkers.

Tired of running her father's shoe shop, incipient spinster Maggie (Martha Plimpton) decides she'll show the overbearing and over-drinking Henry Horatio Hobson (Brian Murray) a thing or two by marrying his timid shoemaker's assistant, Willie Mossop (David Aaron Baker) and instilling him with enough get-up-and-go to be a worthy business rival for the old man. While prompting Will to fill his potential, Maggie also sets her sisters Alice (Amy Wilson) and Vickey (Katie Carr) right by arranging to marry them off to, respectively, lawyer Albert Prosser (Darren Pettie) and tradesman Freddy Beenstock (Austin Lysy).

It's almost as if, in the Shavian era, Brighouse took the influences in the air, then combined them with a look back to King Lear (old man dividing the domain amongst his daughters) and a look forward to the caper-pulled-off-without-a-hitch formula refined by Mission: Impossible. In four economical yet unflaggingly humorous scenes, Maggie puts her plan in motion, anticipates the complications that might crop up, and neatly sidesteps them, thereby ensuring a happy ending for all. (It's not surprising that, two years after Jerry Herman musicalized Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker as Hello, Dolly!, Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen decided to turn Hobson's Choice into Walking Happy.)

Perhaps the reason World War I audiences, like today's, enjoyed the comedy so much is that it's not only Maggie and Will's love story but a broader tale about the possibility of reciprocal love between men and women. There are moments towards the end of Hobson's Choice when it seems like Maggie has taught Will to walk with shoulders back only so that she can relapse into subjugation, but Brighouse doesn't allow that sad eventuality to materialize. The playwright is suggesting that men can really like women and women can like them back. (What a concept!)

Well-made as it is, Hobson's Choice (a phrase referring to a situation where there is really no choice) doesn't add up to much if three expert actors can't be rounded up for the focal roles. Here, Warren and casting director Bernard Telsey have gotten things exactly right. Brian Murray, who rarely does wrong in whatever assignment he takes on, makes a marvelously blustery Hobson; he breathes bumbling, bombastic life into a man with no choice but to accede to his daughter's wily demands. Although Murray can be suave (as in Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby) or sensitive (as he was in David Hare's Racing Demons) with equal aplomb, he's called on here to be broad, and he answers that call with eyes bugging and jaw dropping. His Lancashire Lear, constantly trying to hide his inebriation, is at his funniest when he realizes how completely Maggie has gotten round him and cries out: "I've been diddled!" When his physician, Doctor MacFarlane (Peter Maloney in an expert, late-entrance turn) puts a cold stethoscope to his chest, Murray's guttural response is wonderful to hear. Should anyone decide to make a movie about Bert Lahr's later years, Murray's the guy to get.

Martha Plimpton in Hobson?s Choice
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
As Maggie, Martha Plimpton is another eye-opener. Ramrod straight but graceful, she goes through scene after scene with a mission in mind and a knowing smile on her face. This Maggie is pleased with her organizational skills and especially gratified at having sussed out Willie Mossop's talents and maximized them. David Aaron Baker, almost too handsome to be convincing as the nebbishy Willie, nevertheless pulls off the shy routine and finds many a shade as he makes the transition from abashed and clumsy to confident and commanding. Maggie and Willie are often cast so that she's taller than him, but not this time; Baker is taller than Plimpton, which may detract from sight gag possibilities but makes for a pretty picture during the romantic moments.

Amy Wilson as the quick-tempered Alice and Katie Carr as the even more quick-tempered Vickey hit all of their marks. So do Darren Pettie and Austin Lysy as their suitors. The four bring to their roles what Brighouse called for in all his characters: an underlying good nature. The same applies to Jim Frangione as the other shoemaker, Tubby Wadlow, and to Judith Roberts, who makes an early appearance as a rich customer pleased with Willie's handiwork and primed to serve as his patroness.

It should be noted that the production has a threadbare look. Because North England isn't known to have had anything like the sophisticated look of the south, Derek McLane's set and Laura Bauer's costumes are certainly acceptable, but one might wonder whether so much clapboard was a north country commonplace in 1880 or whether the ladies' bustles are entirely accurate. The shoes, however, are great to look at: McLane has put a couple dozen pairs in Hobson's window and placed even more at strategic spots on and above the set.

All of these pairs of shoes look as if there's plenty of mileage left in them, and this is exactly what Warren and colleagues have proven about Harold Brighouse's quality-leather play: It has worn well.

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