Michaela McPherson and Joe Gately in Triangle. Photo by Carol Rosegg
BOTTOM LINE: A historical drama that lacks a strong story.
Until this year, many people had not heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. March 25, 2011, marked the 100 year anniversary of the catastrophe where 146 laborers, mostly women and children, met their fiery demise. This year, several news features and documentaries, memorials and art exhibits, serve to remind us of the impact that this incident had not only on improving factory working conditions but also the hand it had in fueling the reform movement at the turn of the century, as well as changing the shape of labor laws in this country, including the right for workers to organize. (How apropos, what with the Union controversies going on right now.) One such reminder is the historical drama, Triangle, written by playwright Jack Gilhooley and historian Daniel Czitrom, presented as part of The Great American Play Series at 59E59 Theaters.
Gilhooley and Czitrom focus on the life of legendary Tammany Hall politician, saloon owner, and theatrical producer “Big Tim” Sullivan (Joe Gately). The play centers on his adulterous affair with B-list actress, Margaret “Maggie” Holland (Ashley C. Williams), the couple’s illegitimate daughter, Mary Catherine (Michaela McPherson), and her rocky relationship with her mother. It also illustrates the seedy underbelly of Sullivan’s political and business ventures. When the “Triangle Fire” happens, Sullivan uses it as an opportunity to campaign while Maggie realizes her strong feelings for the reform, and later the suffrage movement, which Sullivan also supported.
The fire itself is touched on only briefly. First, with an opening monologue from one of the young Yiddish survivors explaining the fire in direct address to the audience, then later with a similar monologue given by a prostitute (both characters played by Ruba Audeh) who considers herself lucky that she was not hired by Triangle because although it lead to her prostitution at least she was not caught in the fire. We also learn, through an argument that Maggie and Sullivan have with each other after the fire, that Sullivan may have been responsible for looking the other way when it came to enforcing safety regulations at Triangle, to further his political career. Additionally, we learn through the argument that Sullivan’s hands are tied because he is related, (either by blood or bribes), to everyone from the building inspector to the fire marshall to members of City Hall.
Gilhooley and Czitrom insert levity with some fun name-dropping laced throughout the play. At an assembly meeting, Maggie and Sullivan point out seeing Fannie Perkins, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR across the room. Another time Sullivan’s theatrical assistant, Cathleen (Donna Davis) says that a skinny kid by the name of “Gene” O’Neill is waiting in the bar to meet Sullivan and the kid claims to be a playwright. On two other occasions Cathleen reports that Marie Dressler and Mae West are waiting to audition for Sullivan. The name-dropping earns a few laughs and helps to set the time-period, but the relationships that Sullivan may or may not have had with any of these noteworthy people in history is not explored.
That being said, the relationship Sullivan had with anyone in the play is not fully fleshed out. We learn that he has an affair with Maggie, but not because we see their attraction unfold on stage but rather because two characters, the aforementioned Cathleen and her partner Izzy Weissman (Dennis Wit), act as narrators during the play and they share an expository exchange filling the audience in on the affair. The lack of relationship building in the play seems partly to do with an exposition heavy script, partly to do with a lack of guidance in direction, and partly to do with a general lack of chemistry between most of the actors on stage (though Wit and Davis have their moments). While Gately is a strong presence and he transforms nicely from a towering force to a palsy-stricken man overcome by tertiary syphilis, he remains mostly a caricature of “Big Tim” Sullivan.
Triangle tries to cover so many different points of trivia in the life of “Big Tim” Sullivan that the core of the story is left out. Love triangles, relationship triangles, business and political triangles are all loosely strung together by a title. While Triangle may not be perfect, I applaud any form of historical fiction: Triangle succeeds in instilling an interest in lessons from the past.
(Triangle plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through Sunday, May 1, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30PM; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30PM and Sundays at 3:30PM. Tickets are $18 ($12.60 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.)