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In Love with the Arrow Collar Man

Rupert Simonian, Ian Brodsky, Jack D.Martin  photo Caylena Cahill

 

                     By Marc Miller

 

Theatre 80 St. Marks has been, over the years, a prominent off-Broadway house (it contained the original Youíre a Good Man, Charlie Brown), a revival cinema that flourished before VHS-DVD-streaming took over, and a very occasional way station for works-in-progress. Such a work is In Love with the Arrow Collar Man, Lance Ringelís history of a small but important chapter in early 20th century popular culture. Ringel may have a bit more work to do, and thereís probably more here than the somewhat disorganized doings at 80 St. Marks can contain. But if you like seeing famous people before they were famous, and enjoy a surprising love story, come on down.

 

Surprising, that is, in the way that cultural taboos are largely accepted and even embraced here, never mind the onslaught of Judeo-Christian norms that permeated the country during Ringelís time period, 1903 to 1951. Thereís a lot to cover, and he does so with a clever device: Weíre at an art lecture, where the speaker (Joanna Parson, who bobbles a bunch of lines) is holding forth on the careers of the Leyendecker brothers, gifted illustrators who made and lost fortunes designing covers for the Saturday Evening Post and ads for Arrow collars. Joe (Ian Brodsky) is the more reliable and levelheaded brother, while Frank (Rupert Simonian), though talented, has a penchant for drink and sexual pickups. What the lecturer describes dissolves into reenactments of what sheís talking about, then back to the lecture, and back and forth.

 

And hereís the thing: Both brothers are gay. The discussion about such is kept to a minimum of stage time, as if this were a noncontroversial thing in this time period. Frank runs around with sailors and soldiers. But when Charles Beach (Jack D. Martin), a comely young model, shows up at the studio, Joe is transfixed. He has to draw this man, and he has to have him. Charles becomes the Arrow Collar man, the first of Americaís inescapable advertising icons, and he and Joe get rich on it. Meanwhile, Charles insinuates himself into the Leyendecker family, not just the brothers but their disapproving sister (Evelyn Peralta), and manages more and more of the family business.

 

And thatís pretty much the play. But in a culture that so often dramatizes the agony of otherness, the suffering of objects of prejudice, itís quite bracing to see a work set in the first half of the last century where being gay is an element, but not the only or even the most important element, of the protagonistsí existences. Joe is obsessed with beauty and has the foresight to see how to make a buck off it. Charles is a sweet kid who turns into an efficient entrepreneur. (He even develops a British accent when dealing with the outside world, nicely rendered by Martin.) And while throwing wild Prohibition parties in their New Rochelle mansion, the pair cultivate an in-crowd array of guests who are fun to watch. Texas Guinan (Holland Hamilton), about to become the Jazz Ageís premier nightclub hostess, meets Joe and Charles by chance in Washington Square and immediately adores them, conventional homophobia be damned. Walter Winchell (Justin Bennett, who also plays Manolo, the boysí faithful servant) tries to horn in on the revelry. And Norman Rockwell (Steven Trolinger), gangly and awkward, stammers his way into succeeding Leyendecker at the Post, his work embodying homey mid-century American values better than Joe ever could.

 

This is an Equity showcase, and maybe the actors, under Chuck Muckleís direction, havenít had sufficient time to deepen their characterizations. Their speech patterns donít sound of the period, and the playing can feel surfacey. (Not dull, though: Hamiltonís Texas Guinan, especially, is a firecracker.) On an uncredited and very makeshift set, they have to mime things like picking up papers and answering phones that arenít there. That doesnít spoil Ringelís thorough exploration of ďthe most famous face in America,Ē as he calls Charles, and the man Charles loved, and the way these two were able to cobble together a pretty happy and successful existence amid a very forbidding social climate. I hope In Love with the Arrow Collar Man gets a more elaborate, more finished production; meantime, this one will do.

 

Through Dec. 2 at Theatre 80 St. Marks; tickets, web.ovationtix.com.