When Maxwell Anderson’s Night Over Taos was produced by the Group Theater in 1932 and directed by Lee Strasberg, the eye-popping cast included such future stars as Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Franchot Tone, Clifford Odets, Sanford Meisner, and Burgess Meredith. Nevertheless, the drama only eked out a 13-performance run. Now we learn there was good reason for the collapse, and it clearly had little to do with the acting.
Attempting to remain alert through Estelle Parsons’ uninspired revival of this turgid three-act work at Theatre for the New City, you wonder what Anderson had in mind to say when he presented his version of what lay behind the Taos Revolt of 1847, the bloody historic event in which Mexicans and Indians finally ceded their last outpost in New Mexico to American military forces after an unsuccessful uprising led by rebellious leader Pablo Montoya.
Always intent on promoting theater as a compelling forum for socially conscious topics, he may have wanted to draw some parallel between the imperialistic mid-19th-century grab at the disputed territory and something transpiring during the relatively early Depression era. If so, it doesn’t seem that he made his point to buffeted 1930s audiences, nor does whatever he wanted to express become meaningfully obvious now.
In the play, Montoya (Jack Landron) is at first reported dead, which sets off a power struggle between his bickering sons Federico (Brian Mason) and Felipe (Mickey Solis), while various women of the threatened enclave keen and carry on — the most prominent being Pablo’s obstreperous spouse Dona Josefa (the strutting Mercedes Herrero in Stella Adler’s old role). To much elation, though, Pablo returns. Delivering himself of long-winded pronouncements, the temporarily-conquering hero decides the way to put his grabby boys to rights is to rub them out entirely, along with Diana (Cheryl Lynn Bowers) whom both Pablo and Felipe expect to marry.
Eventually, Father Martinez (Shawn Elliott), a Catholic priest also plucked from the history books, talks some sense into Montoya. A melancholy denouement eventually arrives — and not a moment too soon for patrons sitting patiently through the stilted dialogue and unconvincing situations that Anderson concocts to comment on an event he must have found politically disturbing but for which he had no persuasive dramatic affinity.
To brush the cobwebs away from this long-ago melodramatic failure, Parsons has assembled the too-little-active Peter Larkin to design the Montoya hacienda set and Michael Krass to design the clothes. And while from stage right, Yukio Tsuji keeps his original music moaning underneath, the extremely large cast works earnestly but indifferently to make Anderson’s flat lines sing. Landron is curiously understated during much of the proceedings. Mason and Solis as the contentious siblings lack conviction, which is completely understandable. Only Elliott, wearing a big cross around his neck, brings some authority with him.
Most likely, what Anderson wanted to get across in Night Over Taos is that in any military or political battle, it’s not that the victors prevail but that the losers somehow doom themselves to fail. If so, he needed to find a better way to make his cynical point.