At first glance The Solid Gold Cadillac‘s themes of corporate greed, corruption and mismanagement have a genuinely contemporary ring to them. Yet I suspect the play, billed as a “charming 1950s comedy” has lost some of its pungency since it was first performed at the New Parsons Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut in 1953. Fifty years on post-Enron, HIH and Ansett collapses the play’s “four Ugly Corporation Directors” seem almost benign in comparison to the real life corporate villains of the 80s, 90s and now the 21st century.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a clever script with lots of wit, charming moments and insightful one liners. Its just the villainy may not be as sharply defined as it once was.
The play opens with the four smug directors of General Products Incorporation of America hosting an annual stockholders meeting. They are jolted out of their complacency by some astute questioning from small shareholder Mrs Laura Partridge (Helen Royle). Our directors decide to shut her up by buying her off with a nothing job in the company. Then the fun really begins.
This is pure farce. Our characters are all caricatures with a cartoon quality to their performances. The play is set in Dick Tracey’s New York and our cast (accents aside) slot comfortably into the period. Company treasurer Clifford Snell (Garry Ikin) becomes Mrs Partridge’s implacable opponent. He masters his role with a consistent performance that features subtle shifts (and shiftiness) of character as the plot unravels.
But the eye catching performance comes from Jeff Caruss who plays Edward L. McKeever the tough “I don’t get ulcers. I give them” former company chairman who has given up business for a career in Washington. His first meeting with Mrs Partridge is a remarkable scene; his full-on, high energy character contrasted with Mrs Partridge’s calm and soothing manner. They spark off each other.
The Solid Gold Cadillac is made up of lots of interesting parts. It is at its best when it’s right at the edge like the first meeting between Mrs Partridge and McKeever or the wonderfully contrived press conference given by Mrs Partridge a little later.
Director Sandra Harman has remained faithful to the author’s original concept. The farce is played out as a period piece with some nice little touches. Mrs Partridge’s bland office gradually takes on a more homely feel as she grows into the job. Photos appear on the wall and notice board, while a bakelite radio on top of her filing cabinet is tuned into the fifties.
Then there are the accents. It’s hard to know what a director should do with accents. The characters are of a particular time and type, and authentic accents can help define them. Unfortunately there are times in the play when the cast seem to be working so hard on maintaining their accents that poignant moments are lost and comic opportunities allowed to slip by for want of rightful emphasis.
The performance of Helen Royle in the central role of Mrs Partridge deserves special mention. While she sometimes sounds more Irish than American she has a wonderful presence, excellent timing, is charming, endearing and tuned into the subtleties of her role. Can’t wait to see her again.