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One! Two! Three!

That’s the title of the Billy Wilder film, starring James Cagney, based on the Ferenc Molnar play The President. The film is one of my personal favorites; when I heard the play (in an adaptation by Morwyn Brebner), which was a huge hit at Shaw in 2008, was being revived, I had to see it.

The play is basically the climactic action that concludes the movie. The premise is: Mr. Norrison, the president of an unnamed conglomerate has been tending to an important investor’s daughter as a long-term houseguest. The investor in question is coming to pick her up, and will arrive in an hour. At this point, Norrison discovers that his charge has married in secret, to a comprehensively inappropriate man, and that she is pregnant by him. So Norrison has one hour to turn an uncouth, slovenly, Communist oaf into the perfect son-in-law for an American multi-millionaire. He does it, needless to say.

The movie complicates this story in a variety of ways – the story starts earlier, with the arrival of the girl on Cagney’s doorstep, so there’s time for a number of twists and turns in the plot before the climax; Cagney isn’t the president, he’s one of many vice presidents, still trying to climb the greasy corporate pole; his charge isn’t the daughter of an investor, she’s the daughter of his boss, the president of the company; Cagney’s relationship with his wife is on as shaky ground as his control of the president’s daughter; and the whole thing is playing out in Berlin just before the wall goes up. But the play is really that simple: the first few lines lay out the scenario, and then we simply watch, agog, as Norrison, unleashing a blizzard of verbiage from a whirlwind of energy, achieves the impossible.

Molnar may have thought that he was writing something profound about the nature of human relations under capitalism, but that’s not what principally comes across. (The Wilder film does a better job of bringing that out, precisely because it complicates what Molnar was trying to communicate.) Rather, what we see is that Norrison really is kind of amazing. None of us could think that fast, to say nothing of talking that fast. And of course it’s not just Norrison we’re amazed by; we’re more amazed by the actor – Lorne Kennedy, in this case – who has to play him, who cannot stop talking – talking faster than an auctioneer without the slightest loss of clarity and comprehensibility – for an hour straight. It’s just astonishing to watch.

And astonishing as well to watch the excellent supporting cast keeping up – not just with the speech, but with the plot, as the various players have to change costumes repeatedly and rapidly as a vast cast of characters tromps through Norrison’s office, summoned to participate in different aspects of the makeover. The physical comedy of this production, directed by Blair Williams, fully matches the virtuosity of the text. I think my favorite bit of business involved a bottle of aspirin, which Norrison orders and repeatedly refuses to give to a lawyer in his employ who has a 108 degree fever, telling him the aspirin is designated for another purpose. Then, late in the play, a bunch of flowers come in, designated for the investor’s wife, and Norrison dumps the bottle of aspirin in – to keep them fresh. At which point the lawyer, desperate, grabs the flower and tries to drink the water. And before we’ve finished laughing at that, the next gag – actually, collection of gags – is off and running. (About the only opportunity for physical comedy that was missed was: there’s a barber hiding in a closet, and a variety of men in extravagant beards come through the office, but not one of them is accidentally shaved.)

It’s not really a complete play – as I say, we get the premise and the climactic action, that’s about it. But it’s a perfectly delightful amuse. And it’s over just in time for lunch.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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