Wine of Choice

S. N. Behrman
New York: Random House, 1938
First edition in dust jacket

Wine of Choice presents largely a political tract represented by a zealous socially conscious left-wing United States senator and a young, radical Marxist on the extreme left, while a gentleman of immense wealth and no discernible political interest (a male equivalent of End of Summer’s Leonie Frothingham) provides the anchorage to support such leftist political cantilever. A guest of Laddy Sears, Binkie Niebuhr channels his major energies toward convincing the wealthy Laddy to bankroll a film to star Binkie’s protégée, Wilda Doran, and subsequently to marry her. The romantic portion of this arrangement becomes complicated with the arrival of Laddy’s cousin, Ryder Gerrard, a liberal Democrat senator from New Mexico, plus an ex-employee of Ryder’s, Dow Christophsen, a young journalist-turned-Marxist novelist. The play concludes with the unpredictable, "irresponsible" Wilda appearing on the silver screen but not in front of an altar. Wine of Choice symbolizes Behrman’s first failure in the genre most closely associated with him, the drawing-room comedy. This time the absence of a plot totally undid him for he failed to follow his otherwise serviceable formula. Heretofore at the center of Behrman’s plays was interesting character development such as that of Clark Storey and Serena Blandish. At the center of Wine of Choice is Binkie Niebuhr who remains totally static throughout the proceedings. He might have provided provocative secondary character functions, like Harold Sigrift in Brief Moment or Melchior Feydak in Biography. Not only does Binkie polarize all of the action, but the proceedings unfold in his bungalow which makes for very contrived entrances and exits of major characters. (The genius of set designer Lee Simonson also appears to have deserted him, which only aggravates matters by compounding the author’s misjudgment in locale.) Of no assistance at all, the pivotal character of change, Wilda Doran, is negligibly dull, totally lacking in the fire of comic spirit which ignites Behrman’s other leading female figures. In mere theatrical terms, she is too much offstage and too limited onstage for the spectator to commit himself to her. This criticism might equally be leveled against Laddy Sears and Ryder Gerrard whose intermittent presence muddies the already turbid waters, and even includes the antagonist, Dow Christophsen, against whom Gerrard unleashes sincere political sentiments in the closing moments of the play. Several critics made a minor cause celebre of Behrman’s political sentiments. Whatever their lack in theoretical wisdom, those thoughts more than justify themselves in unadulterated theatrical power; but a successful fusion between the politics and the comedy of playwright Behrman never occurs all evening and the play remains relegated to the reading shelf. It soon became apparent to Miriam Hopkins, the film actress signed to play Wilda, that Behrman would not achieve for her what he had accomplished for Claire, Gordon, Fontanne, and Cowl. She broke her contract following a number of missed performances owing to a "mysterious illness." The Theatre Guild had already rushed Alexander Woollcott to the tryout city of Chicago and he began at once to rewrite every one of his speeches. Philip Moeller, whose directorial hand guided five of Behrman’s plays to Broadway, took ill, and Herman Shumlin found himself recruited to the task of production magician. (Moeller died later in the year.) The major fault in focus of this script, coupled with the fractious nature of the company, spelled doom, and Wine of Choice eked out a meager forty-three performances on Broadway. This time not even Woollcott’s presence offered succor from the early demise of a comedy as lightweight as Brief Moment but with far more serious dramatic flaws.

Copyright © 2009