“There is something worse than loneliness–and that’s the fear of it.” Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday. This opening quote is the central theme of Dorothy Parker’s 1953 play, The Ladies Of The Corridor, which she co-wrote with Arnaud D’Usseau. (It was one of Parker’s few forays into writing for the stage.) In celebration of the master wit’s birthday, the 122nd anniversary of which falls this weekend, I sought out this esoteric, but occasionally revived, work for study. The Ladies Of The Corridor had a brief 45 performance run on Broadway in 1953. Set in a New York hotel filled with widows, divorcees, and to use a Seinfeld reference, “separatees”, the play follows the varying ways that different middle aged women handle this period of adjustment in their lives, and ultimately cope with the possibilities of being alone. As the brief summary that prefaces the Samuel French edition notes, there are six principal women in the play, two of which are the gossiping bores that linger in both the lobby and corridor and help provide some context (and any necessary exposition) for the events that are transpiring. They also serve as an example of the empty rut into which many elderly women inevitably fall — shopping, knitting, and chit-chatting. Never alone, because they don’t want to be.
The other four women provide our points of contrast. The most memorable character is Mildred Tynan, an alcoholic who’s separated from her husband and is regularly destroying herself with booze. Of all the roles in the play, I could see this one being the star vehicle, for not only is intoxication something that delights every actor who tries to play it, but the text affords the actress opportunities for at least one huge monologue, just before the bellboy enters and watches her jump out the window to her death. But her character isn’t all gloom and doom; near the end of the first act, the maid instills in her a brief flash of hope — she’ll get a job and cut out the booze, and life will turn out all right. Unfortunately, as I’ve already spoiled… that isn’t to be. Meanwhile, the concept of work as a way of staving off loneliness is one that Parker and D’Usseau explore in the character of Connie Mercer, a widow (of a few years) who “in working… finds adjustment.” She’s the level-headed character, and the one with the most self-awareness. Thus, she feels the most real of the bunch, although her function as a point of reference for all of the other flawed and tragic characters depreciates some of her own complexity. Were the character to be played by someone who could breathe life into the bones of this realist dullard, there could be an opportunity to make her something more that what the text allows her to be.
But Connie’s main reason for entering our narrative is that she’s a former companion to Lulu Ames, a recent widow who’s moved back from Akron to New York. Despite Connie’s foreboding advice in their first shared scene, Lulu begins seeing an old friend’s 38-year-old brother, and proceeds to get “clingy” and “emotionally needy” (those are the modern terms) when their initial love affair begins to cool off. Grieving for both her husband and her little dog, who passes between the first and second acts, Lulu’s arc, although entirely predictable from the moment that she and Connie discuss dating younger men, is the story’s most engrossing. Her scenes are the longest and feature the most characters, which allows for probably the sharpest dialogue of the whole play. In contrast to Lulu is our final woman, whose scenes are very self-contained. Her name is Grace Nichols, a wheelchair bound invalid who blackmails her son from leaving her side with the knowledge of what happened between he and a young male student, which forced them to leave their town and move away. This revelation comes after their story has long since become plodding, and frankly, doesn’t quite work, for it shifts all of the drama onto the son and away from Mrs. Nichols, the character who, structurally, is supposed to be the focus of their scenes. Because of this flaw, and the unshakable boredom of their initial interactions, this subplot remains the show’s weakest.
So with a few fine stories and a few less-than-stellar ones, you can already tell that this is a play of mediocre variety. However, Parker and D’Usseau’s prose occasionally meets moments of poetic excellence, especially in the knowing stage directions. At the same time, the dialogue itself varies between being exceedingly believable (as with both Mildred and Connie’s stuff) and stiltedly artificial (mostly with the two other corridor/lobby ladies). In the middle are the scenes with Lulu and her paramour Paul, as the clash of romance and realism forms a major chasm in their relationship. As a director, it would be a fascinating challenge to make everything play with an ear for truthfulness. And ultimately, that’s what The Ladies Of The Corridor wants to access — the truth of what befalls women who end up being alone after decades of companionship. (The opening stage direction reveals that at the time of writing, there were an estimated seven million widows in the U.S.) Although not without its flaws, the play features unique characters and some memorable beats, and fulfills its thesis easily. Happy birthday, DP!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules!