Unfashionably Good

Ferenc Molnár's Fashions For Men

More than 90 years after it premiered on Broadway, Molnár's comedy returns to New York's Mint Theater

So infuriating is the peculiar nature of Péter Juhász, the lead character in Manhattan's Mint Theater Company's latest farcical production, that your typical New Yorker may likely have to restrain himself... even herself... from leaping on stage and giving Péter a swift boot in the rump to get him to finally stand up for himself.

The problem: he's simply just too good-natured. And this quality, according to many others on stage, naturally brings them to grief. "I just can't bear to see people suffer. If you look into another's soul, it's impossible to judge him," explains our lead, to which his mentor rejoins: "So don't look!"

The delightful inanity of much of the story -- written nearly a century ago by Ferenc Molnár, one of Hungary's leading playwrights as the First World War raged across Europe -- suggests we're getting an early look at screwball comedy, more than a decade before it hit Hollywood.

The play, however, often lacks much of the bite it could have, as absurd situations are set up only to find juicy retorts sometimes gone begging.

Nevertheless, this well-paced, beautifully staged, finely acted, two-and-a-half-hour production makes the journey worthwhile.

It starts with Péter in the fashionable haberdashery he owns in downtown Budapest. We find him first extending endless credit to patrons when he can't afford to do so, and then his faithless wife dumps him for one of Péter's employees, who, as we soon find out, has absconded with Péter's life's savings. Then the shop owner is stung by a young female employee who has teased him into believing she has feelings for him.

The protagonist keeps from learning his lesson, or lessons, because he knows only one way to treat people and attributes much of his fate to part of a grander scheme in which things somehow will work out. Whether they do or not for Péter I leave to my readers to hopefully find out for themselves.

Perhaps Molnár -- who had been a World War I correspondent -- wrote the play thinking a bit of escapism was in order to give decency its due at a time in which the world had gone mad in a war more brutal than had ever been seen.

Despite the play's levity, Molnár is a literary heavyweight who combined poetic fantasy, psychological realism and social criticism, according to theatre historian Dr. Maya Cantu. Molnár's works are standard reads in Hungarian schools, The New York Times published his "Diary of a War Correspondent," and Hollywood adapted eight of his plays and novels into films, including Billy Wilder's wonderfully absurd comic jewel, One, Two, Three.

If it comes as a surprise to discover -- at this intimate West 43rd Street theatre -- a little-known playwright who has actually enjoyed an illustrious career, it shouldn't. This is what the Mint Theater does, often to remarkable success.

While this period piece is dressed in character, no attempt is made to speak in the local accent, reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner, which was set in a gift store also in Budapest. That classic film likely took more than a hint from Molnár's play, having been made more than twenty years after Fashions for Men premiered in the Budapest National Theatre in 1917, followed by performances across European capitals before arriving on Broadway at the National Theatre in 1922.

No matter its American feel, director Davis McCallum has created a small pleasure. Joe Delafield captures a nuanced innocence of Péter's character, never losing himself, despite the many reasons given to do so. And on the rare occasions he does show a bit of pluck, it sparkles.

Kurt Rhoads' middle-aged "Count" (of what we haven't a clue) is the play's most charged character. Quite the wealthy man whose latest endeavour is to turn the cheese world upside down, he helped Péter set up shop and continues to be his benefactor as Péter's world falls apart.

But the Count finds the young man's virtue increasingly annoying, especially when it gets in the way of his own amorous intentions toward Péter's former shop assistant, "Paula" (Rachel Napoleon).

The attractive Napoleon has the play's most challenging role with her character morphing throughout. She performs well. But because of the youthful emotional restraint and pragmatism of her character -- that wants things from others rather than truly caring about them -- it seems that at the critical turns, she doesn't quite convince us of the conflict she's supposedly feeling.

None of these are issues for Jeremy Lawrence's "Philip," the store's shrewd elder statesman and curmudgeon, who stays most true to Péter as the lead struggles with various surreal twists, which perhaps may be the clearest nod to the period in which Molnár conceived this theatrical diversion.

Fashions for Men
Mint Theater Company
311 West 43rd Street
New York, New York