Through Aug. 25
The American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center
2700 South Lang Street, Arlington
If you think the dance marathon craze made popular during the Great Depression was no different than other harmless passing fads like drive-ins, toga parties and pet rocks, think again.
As described in June Havoc’s “Marathon ‘33” (now playing at Arlington’s American Century Theater), the dance-‘til-you-drop contests were a pretty brutal pastime. In truth, they were torturous tests of endurance that kept hard-up participants sleepless on their feet for weeks, sometimes months, desperately hanging on for the guaranteed free meals and a shot at the prize money promised to the last couple left standing.
Havoc, the younger sister of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, was an actual veteran of the marathon circuit. She spent her childhood performing as vaudeville headliner “Baby June” (immortalized in the Broadway musical “Gypsy”) and later achieved Broadway and Hollywood success as an adult. But for three very lean years in between when the adolescent June eked out a living in marathons as a participant and featured entertainer (some marathoners sang, danced and did comic bits for extra tips). All in all, it was rough going, particularly for a girl who’d fallen so far.
“Marathon ’33” carefully illustrates the horrors of the endless event — unbending rules, dirty tricks, mandatory sprints to weed out weaker participants — and while these specifics are fascinating, the play’s thin plotline is not: down-and-out former child star makes it through bad times and comes out even stronger and somehow ennobled. And though the first act unfolds engagingly, the screechy second act is a letdown.
Staged by Jack Marshall, American Century Theater’s production best succeeds in recreating the marathon experience and transporting the audience back to 1933 (one of the worst years of the Depression). It looks and feels like the real thing. Throughout much of the two-and- a-half hour show there’s a live band playing and the marathon is always in progress. Two roustabouts are constantly mopping floors and moving chairs and tables. Seated as spectators, the audience gets a sense of the event with all its erratic energy and insanity. It seems Marshall has been faithful to the late playwright’s intentions (Havoc died at 97 in 2010).
Set designer Michael deBlois has transformed the big black box Gunston Theatre II into a period dance hall. The dance floor’s rail is ringed with café tables for two. The walls are papered with ads from local sponsors. There’s a cute concession stand and cot-filled rest area for contestants off to the side. Rip Claassen’s costumes add an appropriately tatty touch.
Of course, the autobiographical play’s central character is June Havoc renamed Jean Reed for the marathon. It’s hard to root for her. As played by Jennifer Richter, she scowls and sobs her way through the contest including her specialty act. You’d think a trouper like Baby June might exhibit a little star quality to make a buck. Not here.
Standouts in the large cast include Craig Miller as the marathon’s shady operator, and Bill Karukas as its smooth-talking emcee Ruddy Blaine. Daniel Corey is terrific as a ‘30s-style funnyman; Anne De Michele makes a great low rent Harlow wannabe and Deborah Rinn Critzer is a hoot as a well-off ringside spectator who takes maniacal delight in the more sadistic aspects of the entertainment.
Intermittently, musical director and pianist Tom Fuller leads the peppy six-person band in setting the mood with songs from the era sung by actors all in excellent voice.
Because Havoc’s 1963 work calls for about 30 actors and a band, it’s rarely produced, so kudos to American Century Theater for fulfilling its mission to promote 20th century theater by bringing Havoc’s firsthand account of this freaky slice of Americana to life.