‘Unmentionables’ Review: Pick a Side

Attending a play, we often take a character’s side. In “Unmentionables,” written by Joseph Samuel Wright and directed by Montserrat Mendez, that happens literally. The seats encircle the stage, and you find yourself either in the cabinet of the top talent agent and lawyer, James Johnson (Rick Zahn) or in the reception room right outside of it. Thus, your location allows you to observe some characters better than others and makes you feel like a part of the action.

How’s that for breaking the fourth wall?

Moreover, the characters, whose doings and emotions at first appear histrionic, eventually reveal their secrets and true faces. They open up to each other and the audience, unable or unwilling to keep their composure under stress. Purposely, their secrets represent various social issues, such as motherhood, racism, and machismo, to name just a few. And it is intriguing to observe how far one can go to conceal a secret and how one reacts to the others’ revelations.

Since the majority of the characters are women, feminine issues receive the largest share of attention. Mr. Johnson’s employees, two young unmarried girls, Gertie Fowler (Meghan Jones) and Dora O’Mailley (Danielle Boivin), and a widow, Mrs. Milner (Heather Cunningham) are the outsiders of show business, while Joan Madison (Jeanine Bartel) is a famous movie star, and Ann Southerland (Christina Toth) is still weighing her options in regards to acting.

As one can imagine, younger women are mostly concerned with marriage. In Gertie’s words, “You can’t marry just any man.” Beaming with self-confidence, she tells Mrs. Milner she wants a doctor and intends to marry well. Dora, on the other hand, has insecurities about herself. Show business and fashion magazines fascinate her, and she normally puts great effort into looking her best. While Gertie is a tall redhead, who moves energetically and chats on and on, Dora is a pale brunette, soft-spoken and humble. That is to say, the two girls’ characters differ as much as their looks and ethnic backgrounds.

Then there is also Miss Southerland, who keeps her back straight like a rod and resembles a porcelain doll, beautiful but aloof. Her wealthy parents would rather marry her off than let her become an actress. In the late 1930s, when the action takes place, American society still looked down on female movie stars. Worried that Miss Southerland will slip through his fingers, Mr. Johnson asks Miss Madison to convince her that acting is a “ladylike profession.” In this and other instances, the characters often have to lure each other into something, or compromise for their own benefit, selling and buying each other’s secrets with money and favors.

As for male characters, here we have a father-son pair, Mr. Johnson and Ricky (Jimmy Betts). They have a tense relationship to begin with, and it only gets worse as their secrets rise to the surface. Ricky depends on Mr. Johnson financially and prefers asking for money to working with his father. As we find out, neither of them fits the stereotype of a “real man.” The junior is a slacker and a misogynist while the senior, although successful professionally, harbors an unmanly passion, which ignites his son’s hatred.

In other words, as the action unravels, it invites the audience to think about stereotypes and maybe reconsider them. Who is the real man? What constitutes a woman’s happiness: a marriage, a baby, or a successful career? Does honor depend on one’s own principles or public opinion? Will the secrets one cannot keep destroying him or her or alleviate the burden?

Not only are the answers to these questions subjective, they also vary by time period. What was thought scandalous in the 1930s may be acceptable – even if unpopular – today. Therefore, enjoying “Unmentionables” as a work of art, we can also appreciate the progress we have made in terms of respecting others’ rights and preferences, especially when the characters’ actions and reactions to each other outrage us.

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