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Can a Nice Guy Finish First (or At Least Third)?

Date: Mar 06, 2015

The first time he read Fashions For Men Davis McCallum wasn't quite sure what to make of it. "It's unlike any other play I've done, and I've been doing plays for 20 years," he says. "That's part of why I wanted to direct it."

Written by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár in 1917, the script initially seems like a light, straightforward comedy. When we meet Peter Juhász, the owner of a clothing shop in Budapest, he's happy with his life, his business, and his marriage. Only, whoops, he's such a nice man that he can't ask anyone to pay for merchandise, which means he's about to lose his shop to creditors. Plus, double whoops, his wife is running off with his best friend, and she's taking all the money they have left. But still, Peter's just so nice that he wishes the new couple well.

Surely, then, this is going to be a comedy about a milquetoast finding his backbone. Except it isn't. In fact, Peter remains ridiculously selfless for the rest of the play, even when circumstances lead him to working in a country cheese shop, giving his last few possessions to a swindler, and falling in love with a former employee who will do anything to rise above her station.

So does that make Fashions For Men a savage satire? A predecessor to Brecht's The Good Person of Szechuan and all the other plays that question our ability to be truly good in a capitalist society?

Well… yes and no. Ultimately, the play is a romance and a satire, a light comedy and a social critique. And in his production at the Mint Theater Company, which is running through April 12, McCallum wants all those facets to be present.

 That means carefully balancing the tone, so that there are touches of zaniness and sincerity in any given moment. "There's clearly a comic sensibility to it, but if we don't also believe in the circumstances and in some way feel like the characters have dimensions that are recognizable and human, then there's nothing there," McCallum says.

Take the first scene, when Peter's wife confesses that she's leaving him. Actors Joe Delafield and Annie Purcell vibrate with emotion, but they keep getting interrupted by needy customers and co-workers. That dash of funny frustration keeps us from getting too absorbed in their breakup.

"It's about encouraging the company not to make a bid for the audience's sympathy, to allow us a little bit of distance," McCallum says. "That gives us permission to enjoy it."

And as McCallum sees it, enjoyment is key. "I feel like that loving but also kind of mischievous attitude is how Molnár looks at these characters," he says. "It has a definite edge. If it were a Chekhov play, he would look on them with a profound sympathy for the anguish of falling in love with you best friend's wife, but Molnár doesn't look at it that way. He invites us to say, 'This is extreme, but is this not what life is kind of like?'"


Mark Blankenship is the editor of TDF Stages

Photo by Richard Termine