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Ben Roberts and Amanda Jones
in Walking Down Broadway
(Photo © Richard Termine)
When Dawn Powell went to Hollywood for the filming of her unproduced 1931 play, Walking Down Broadway, the cantankerous author enjoyed herself for about a week and then complained to her long-tolerant diary, "The gaiety of early morning brilliant sunshine, immense green trees, and singing birds leaves me depressed and weepy by noon." Even though she'd been paid a princessly sum ($7,500) for the work, she just couldn't shake her chronic blues. What she didn't complain about, though, was the on-set situation: The eventually fired Erich von Stroheim radically altered her work into something that was released as Hello, Sister!, an inane title for a flick featuring Zazu Pitts and the nearly forgotten but always amusing Minna Gombell.

Maybe the paycheck compensated for her pain, or maybe she realized that nothing von Stroheim or screenwriters Geraldine Nomis, Leonard Spigelgass, etc. were coming up with was an actual travesty of her own work. (She received writing credit along with the others.) This is made clear by the Mint Theater's world premiere production of Walking Down Broadway, which is mostly interesting as a curiosity: What did Powell have to say about the innocents who invaded New York during the early years of the Depression?

Her take is similar to other Hollywood product of the period, which featured such snappy character actresses as Joan Blondell, Iris Adrian, and -- yes! -- Minna Gombell. (Two decades later, Rona Jaffe would have characters say pretty much the same things in The Best of Everything.) Marge (Christine Albright) and Elsie (Amanda Jones) come to New York from Marble Falls -- probably not the one in Texas but a stand-in for Mount Gilead, Ohio, where Powell was born and about which she frequently wrote. As eager young things do, the women flirt with men and quickly become enamored of the equally guileless Chick (Denis Butkus) and Dewey (Ben Roberts), so much so that Marge is soon discussing marriage with Chick and Elsie is attempting to talk Dewey into a wedding.

The problem is that both pairs of naifs are quickly exposed to cynical Manhattanites, as also happens regularly to Big Apple tyros -- especially in scripts like these. The party-poopers encountered are sometime showgirl Eva Elman (Carol Halstead) and free-loading playboy Mac (Antony Hagopian). Wised up by the sneering Mac and the wise-cracking Eva, Marge and Chick come to doubt each other's sincerity when an unexpected pregnancy occurs. Ensuing complications are resolved in a Tinseltown ending that Powell tacked on long before the real Tinseltown hired hands got their hands on her script.

Many thanks go to Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank for dusting off the Powell opus with what must have been a heavy-duty feather duster. As compared to most of his previous choices, however, Bank hasn't found a neglected gem here. It's a piece of well-intentioned fluff tossed off by a Greenwich Village figure who by 1931 had become two parts Marge and Elsie and one part Eva Elman -- or, perhaps, two parts Eva and one part Marge and Elsie. Powell knew what was what on her adopted island.

Operating on what must be his usual girdle-tight budget, Bank assembled a production team that does what it can to make a case for the piece, with varying results. Set designer Robert Hanna succeeds handily with two bedroom/living-room combos, one for the women and one for the men. He's got the tight quarters correct, right up to the wash line strung across the girls' space and the Murphy bed in the guys'. Prop designer Brenda Turpin deserves praise for locating a period telephone but costume designer Brenda Turpin does less well, particularly with the ties draped around the men's necks. Sound designer Jane Shaw broadcasts evocative period music, including songs sung by Rudy Vallee and Al Jolson; yet she has problems with doors slamming off-stage, not least because the doors that are slammed on stage make no noise whatsoever.

Most of director Steven Williford's players have a firm grip on their roles, notably Hagopian, whose Mac comes off as one of those fellows whose appetite for something ritzier is never satisfied. Halstead gets the best lines -- "I'm always happy to tell another woman to tell a man to go to hell" -- and she knows that they should be flicked as quickly as a cigarette lighter. Also fine is Cherene Snow, turning up in the second act as a housemaid who makes her own acid comments on men. It's a brief but strong appearance.

As the on-and-off lovers, Albright (looking very period indeed), Butkus, Jones, and Roberts are terrific at ticker-tape-paced delivery but less adept at sincerity. Maybe that's because Powell's depiction of sincerity isn't as convincing as she might have wanted it to be.

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