I did not see fifteen men and only saw a little bit of smoke. – Narrator
Harry M. Daugherty (John Combs) should have been a carnival barker. He is the kind of man to pull you in to see the alligator lady, take your money, and tell you that you had a good time on your way out.
Daugherty was a promoter, an early grifter, a self-styled profile-raising man with political connections. He was someone who had the inside track in the 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago in an effort to get Warren G. Harding (David Hunt Stafford) elected President of the United States. If only he could get Harding to stay out of his way.
George Harvey (Kevin Dulude), short for George Brinton McClellan Harvey, is another man with strong political connections. Harvey was a conservative Democrat and the owner of The North American Review’s War Weekly, later called Harvey’s Weekly. His power and prestige was enough to earn an audience with Daugherty. He was not there for benignities, setting aside enough information in a secure location on Harding to get Harding off the ticket and out of the race.
And although both men wanted something from Harding, one chose a nefarious route while the other barked his way into Harding’s good graces.
Daugherty was having none of this reprehensible falderal and neither was Florence Kling Harding (Roslyn Cohn) who provided more than ample support in defending her husband and ushering George Harvey out.
Hardly a thing to speak of in public but Harding’s feelings toward his wife were indifferent while she adored him. But tonight, she was going out to dinner with Daugherty to discuss something very important. Harding had other issues on his mind.
Colin Speer Crowley’s Fifteen Men in A Smoke-Filled Room is a historical play with an abundant amount of information on the characters surrounding Warren G. Harding during the 1920 election cycle. In this play, Harding is a reluctant candidate, who wants no part of the Presidency. Also, he had a few skeletons in the closet – a mistress, Sarah Walker (Nan Britton) and a daughter from that union. All characters move in the direction of getting Harding elected even his enemy. And all hint at what they want once he is elected.
Staging by Jules Aaron, the director, was very peculiar and did not have a strong through line. Actors were moving from place to place without cause and one actor had his back to the audience during a critical restaurant scene. (It worked for Stanislavski in The Seagull but didn’t work here.) The relationships between some actors were not defined and lacked adequate backstories. And it was difficult to find the conflict and resolutions in those scenes. Finding more layers and unspoken actions may be the key to unlocking the play. Usually actors have been exceptional in their roles in previous Theatre 40 productions. That was not the case this particular night but, it may have been simply an off night.
That said, there was an enormous bright spot in this production. More on that later.
Jeff G. Rack, Set Designer, places the actors in a set that is functional, real, and without question striking. This is generally the rule in Theatre 40 productions and this production was no exception.
Also, Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound is impeccable especially the sound of the band playing outside.
The one exceptional bright spot in this production was the performance of Roslyn Cohn as Florence Kling Harding. Her level of concentration was superior, her backstory put life into the character, and the levels in her ambiguity in character kept one guessing throughout the night. In an especially dramatic moment, near the end, Harding exercised incredible strength not turning around knowing full well what was going on. Cohn put might and backbone into Harding. And, there was an insatiable craving of wanting more from this brilliant performance.
John Combs is a workhorse at Theatre 40. His Harry M. Daugherty character is reminiscence of other characters he’s portrayed. His craft is strong and functional which is always half the battle. The other half needed light. Daugherty is an extremely strong character who is not dismayed by the obstacles set before him. Even in moments where he has been bested, he was able to overcome them with a strong resolve. The first scene with George Harvey had little resolution, lacked conflict, did not include a physical relationship or an intellectual eagerness between men. Daugherty has his eyes set on a clear objective but the character Combs needs help in finding it.
Kevin Dulude was miscast as George Harvey, a man with political power who wanted more. There is a lot more to add to the character and to the way he carries himself as a man with power and prestige. The long black coat left little room for a physical life on stage. Dulude faired better as the Waiter.
Sarah Walker played Nan Britton like a girlfriend. A reality yes, but she did not play her as his possible wife and the mother of his child, which would have given the character more power and nuance. Visually, the relationship seemed to be father/daughter and really not something you want to convey when the stakes are so high. Also, Walker needs to find the conflict in her scenes. She requires a stronger objective, and a reason for being. Why does she show up in his hotel suite? What does she want? Why can’t she get it? She wants Harding to be President of the United States but that can’t be her objective. And, coming to his hotel room is dooming his chances of being president. What was she thinking? If he is elected President, she’ll have a book deal, her daughter will be taken care of for the rest of her life, and her life will change for the better in so many ways. Characters are given life with a stronger objective.
Roger K. Weiss was the Radio Broadcaster standing behind a translucent screen and a microphone. There is more to add to this character, more to his style of broadcasting to be a voice for the period.
David Hunt Stafford does well as Warren G. Harding, the reluctant presidential candidate. The love for his mistress was genuine but one wonders where the character is going. The amorous parley requires a scent of conflict. Throughout the evening, Harding is in the throws of giving it all up for his mistress, but his mind is clearly changed near the end and without a dramatic reason.
Michéle Young’s work as Costume Designer set the period and was remarkable.
Others members of the crew are as follows:
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Designer
Nick Foran – Assistant Lighting Designer & Stage Manager
Judi Lewin – Hair/Wigs/Makeup Designer
Roger K. Weiss – Assistant Director
Phillip Sokoloff – Press
Run! And take a lover who doesn’t want to let you go.
Theatre 40 is a great venue, the staff is excellent, and as always the parking is free!