During the Depression, a lot of American plays were set in small towns.
Not, of course, towns that had been ravaged by dust storms or towns in which banks had foreclosed on helpless farmers, but towns with tree-lined streets where everybody knew everybody and life still seemed manageable.
Paul Osborn's 1937 "On Borrowed Time" is such a play. It is set before World War I and concerns a grandfather unwilling to die and leave his grandson in the hands of a meddlesome, greedy relative. For most of the evening, Gramps forestalls his own death by trapping Death himself, a dapper gentleman named Mr. Brink, in a big tree in his backyard.
By the end of the play, Gramps has learned that Death is not his enemy. The local doctor tells Gramps that a patient who is incurable and suffering agonizingly desperately needs to die. He can't until Brink is freed.
Gramps relents. For my money, he becomes a little too cozy about embracing death. Normally I am not a foe of sentimentality, but it does strike me that the play's view of Death as a warm puppy is a bit too simpleminded.
What makes the play worth reviving, however, is its sense of whimsy and fantasy, captured beautifully in George C. Scott's production. Scott himself plays Gramps. He has a muscularity, an edge and a craggy voice that cut the play's potential syrupiness substantially.
Scott is such a powerful figure on stage that every time you see him you regret all the roles he hasn't done, particularly the Shakespeare heroes he would have played more forcefully than most of the actors we've seen do them.
Nathan Lane is expectedly funny as Mr. Brink, though he makes Death a petulant, pouting creature rather than a menacing one. He does not seem enough of an adversary for Gramps. Matthew Porac plays the grandson admirably. As his nemesis, the greedy aunt, Betty Henritze, is a plausible busybody, but her voice is often so shrill it makes the character needlessly abrasive. Conrad Bain is solid as the doctor and Teresa Wright endearing as Gramps' wife, who dies early in the play.
"On Borrowed Time" is at heart an amiable fairy tale, which would be better served by a stage with a curtain. But Marjorie Kellogg's set - particularly the grandly designed tree - makes enchanting use of the Circle in the Square space. The play is slight, but, in Scott's hands, wonderfully charming.
Paul Osborn's play "On Borrowed Time," directed last night at Circle in the Square by the estimable George C. Scott, seems to be a play that fashion has passed by and history has not quite caught up with. If it ever will.
Yet it is a vehicle for acting - as well as a vessel for sentiment - that has served its successful turn on Broadway twice before. With Scott as its mentor, it might well please audiences on this third, also hopefully lucky, occasion. It is a play to get neither delirious over nor angry about.
The cultural '30s and '40s - and Osborn based his play on the L. E. Watkins' novel in 1938 - seemed much concerned with the visitor from outer space, usually emissary of either the Lord or the devil, who arrived to collect some unsuspecting citizen, carrying him off presumably to his just reward. Thus, for example, came the cinematic Mr. Jordan, and any number of other stage and screen saints and demons.
In "On Borrowed Time," the figure of Death is a mild-mannered yet insistent fellow, the unctuous Mr. Brink (Nathan Lane). He has come for Gramps (Mr. Scott, himself), who is less ready tha most to go.
His reluctance is not entirely selfish. You see, his grandson - a charming brat called Pud (Matthew Porac), who adores him and imitates his every word and move - has just, in short order, been bereaved of father, mother (both in an accident) and grandmother.
Left a modest but adequate inheritance by his parents, Pud is now the object of attention of a scheming, wicked aunt, who wished to adopt him in order to ruin his mind and spirit and acquire his money. Gramps is determined to frustrate her plan, so when Mr. Brink comes calling he tricks him up an apple tree, and decides to keep him at bay until Pud reaches his maturity.
Unfortunately, with Brink up the tree, the world is up the creek, for no living creature - from a fly to an elephant - can die, which would result in a log-jam of vitality too awful to contemplate. What can be done? That is the play's problem. It may be the audience's as well.
I have never seen the play before, but vaguely remember the not-so-bad 1939 movie, starring Lionel Barrymore and Cedric Hardwicke, which ended, if I recall right, in some ghastly Hollywood image of heaven. As Gramps, Barrymore, of course, played Barrymore, and now some 50 years later, quite reasonably, Scott elects to play Scott. It is a performance I have always enjoyed, indeed can't get enough of.
Yes, Scott probably should be doing more serious things - seeing him at his theatrical home, the Circle in the Square, makes us think of him in Chekhov, Miller, O'Neill and even Noel Coward. But if Gramps is what he wants, then I for one am grateful to relax and exult in his every careful mannerism of curmudgeonly lovability, his every nuanced grunt and glint, his timing and his snarls, his phrasing and his grins.
Admittedly, he is very fond of his acting technique, but he has an awful lot of acting technique to be very fond of, so let's enjoy his enjoyment in a play he has chosen. He has also chosen a very nifty cast to accompany him in this Broadway time-warp.
Teresa Wright - who is starting to look and sound startlingly like Helen Hayes - proves adorably acidulated as the Grandmother, and Nathan Lane is funny, sinister and most of all impressive as Death up an apple tree without a ladder.
Conrad Bain seemed perfectly fine as the skeptical Doctor finally convinced of the strange situation, Bette Henritze was horrifically odious and appropriate as the avaricious and puritanical aunt, while Parac turns in a refreshingly normal-seeming performance as the little boy.
Add to the entertainment Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's very adroit setting, the wholly convincing costumes of Holly Hynes, the apt lighting of Mary Jo Dondlinger and Scott's own authoritative staging, and you have a fair evening, made much fairer by the virtuoso eccentricity of our Great Scott.
But when "On Borrowed Time" was new in 1938, the critic Brooks Atkinson, after acclaiming it as "blissful," suggested that: "Nothing so original or so jovial has turned up on our stages for a long time...The Broadway theater is not worn out yet." And we think Broadway is in trouble now! Times and taste do change.
George C. Scott, an actor whose calling card has long been gruff irascibility, wants to be lovable in "On Borrowed Time," the 1938 Paul Osborn comedy that brought him back to the Circle in the Square on Broadway last night.
The portly, bearded star looks more like an avuncular Papa Hemingway than ever, albeit one with a cracker-barrel accent. His costume is the sort of pristine, neatly pressed denim overalls given to actors playing twinkly-eyed heartland bumpkins in television commercials for synthetic old-fashioned lemonade. As if this were not enough, the character he has chosen to play is known as Gramps, and the closest Gramps ever gets to being a grump is his occasional indulgence in cuss words, like "hell," that are suitable for publication in a family newspaper.
It's a stretch, but with his timing and command of the stage both firmly intact, Mr. Scott pulls off the trick with ease, infusing everything he does with a burly warmth and kindly authority. He is the main reason for even considering a visit to "On Borrowed Time," a play that can at most be recommended as a light diversion for those theatergoers who have more time, borrowed or not, than they know what to do with. In the seasons since the 1980 Broadway revival of Osborn's 1939 failure, "Morning's at Seven," proved a surprise and deserved hit, this effort marks the third attempt by a major New York theater company to find another hidden treasure in the Osborn canon. But as with "Oliver Oliver" (staged by the Manhattan Theater Club in 1985) and "Tomorrow's Monday" (at the Circle Repertory Company the same year), the best to be said about "On Borrowed Time" is that it goes down pleasantly and, with this production's cuts, quickly.
Given that the play's subject is death, it might seem odd to call the evening pleasant, but defanging mortality was Osborn's mission. Set in an idyllic Anytown, U.S.A., "On Borrowed Time" is about how Gramps forestalls Death, in the form of a man called Mr. Brink and played by Nathan Lane, by keeping him barricaded in an apple tree. Gramps wants to linger long enough to rescue his orphaned grandson, Pud (Matthew Porac), from the clutches of an evil aunt (Bette Henritze). Yet even Gramps understands that death is part of the natural order of things and a necessary sacrifice on an overcrowded earth where youth must have its day. Osborn, who was the son of a Baptist minister, sugarcoats that grim reality by having Mr. Brink usher his victims painlessly into a hereafter in which happily reunited families can pick up where they left off.
Is it coincidence that Mr. Brink found favor with American audiences when the country was on the brink of war? "On Borrowed Time," which was made into a movie in 1939, proved among the first of a number of Hollywood wartime fantasies ("Heaven Can Wait," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," "A Guy Named Joe") that patriotically promised an afterlife to an audience increasingly primed to sustain heavy casualties overseas. This same psychic panacea was also offered by "Our Town," which, as it happened, opened on Broadway the night after "On Borrowed Time" and became an even bigger hit.
In pop culture, as in religion, there will always be a mass market for a great beyond -- witness "Ghost" -- but "On Borrowed Time" is too corny and soft-headed to satisfy, even by the mushy standards of the genre. When a husband and wife are killed in an automobile crash early in this play, the pain of grief is dispensed with entirely and the couple's immediate family is found in a jocular mood in the very next scene, set a week later. In Osborn's hands, death not only loses its sting but also seems considerably less discomforting than a bad cold.
What juice remains in the script can be found after intermission, when the author reaps the farcical payoffs of a plot that temporarily rescues even insects from their final rewards. The unbeatable Mr. Lane, dressed in devilish variations on period formal wear (spats and starched collars included), has a high time up that tree, presenting Mr. Brink as an easily perturbed fussbudget; the role taps the James Coco side of Mr. Lane's comic personality that has also been exploited by his more demanding assignments in Terrence McNally comedies. When given the chance, he and Mr. Scott match each other clownish take for take, as they did on the same stage in the 1983 "Present Laughter" that first gave a boost to Mr. Lane's career.
Then, as now, Mr. Scott serves ably as his own director. He knows his way around the Circle in the Square's awkward arena, and so does the designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, whose graceful indoors-outdoors set features a cozy, Stickley-furnished parlor and a fabulist Thomas Hart Benton tree. Though there is one glaring casting gaffe -- Ms. Henritze's battle-ax aunt is a coarse Margaret Hamilton impersonation -- Mr. Scott has otherwise recruited such solid supporting players as Conrad Bain (as a fussy doctor), Alice Haining (a kindly neighbor) and, especially, Teresa Wright as a beautiful, no-nonsense Granny. If there has to be a cute tyke named Pud onstage, then I suppose young Mr. Porac is as inoffensively adorable as any child actor one could hope to find.
But little Pud is no match for the cuddly, beaming, expansive star, who turns even his trademark hot-under-the-collar outbursts into geniality incarnate. George C. Scott as Gramps! Who would have imagined it? These days, I guess, even a Patton must bend to fashion and become a Schwarzkopf.