Joseph Moncure March was a preppy former student of Robert Frost who became managing editor of The New Yorker in its early days and made his name with The Wild Party, a book-length poem about Jazz Age decadence. Written in rhymed couplets ("Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville."), March's tale of a lethal Manhattan soiree was a succes de scandale in 1928, thanks to its depictions of high life, low characters, brutal violence, and unusual sexual preferences. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who produced an illustrated edition, says William Burroughs once told him, "It's the book that made me want to be a writer."
Except for a misbegotten movie that conflated it with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, The Wild Party was forgotten until Spiegelman's version came out in 1994. Six years later, not one but two musical adaptations premiered in the same season: Andrew Lippa's at the Manhattan Theatre Club (February) and Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's on Broadway (April). The obvious next step would be to dig out whatever else March wrote that might be worth reviving, and Silent Theatre Company has taken it, staging March's follow-up to The Wild Party, The Set-Up.
More successful than The Wild Party in its time, but likewise mostly ignored in the decades after (though Robert Wise did base a movie on it in 1949), The Set-Up is another rhymed opus that works New York's seamy side: an urban fable about a black boxer called Pansy. "Mean as a panther, crafty as a fox," Pansy is a prime contender for the middleweight crown until the "brass-knuckled hand of the law" hangs "a hot one on [his] jaw." Turns out he's got "an extra wife / And three scrawny brats" on the side. A judge sends him up for a five-year term.
The story resumes a decade later. Two slimes, Cohn and McPhail (no ethnic punches pulled here), need a chump to lose to an up-and-comer named Sailor Gray. They pick Pansy, who's now a paunchy shadow of his former self. Though the Sailor's manager has authorized $20 for a dive, Cohn and McPhail figure they can get the same result and keep the money if they don't tell Pansy about the fix. Like Rocky Balboa, Pansy doesn't know it's a damn show—he thinks it's a damn fight. But it's a no-win situation for him all the same.
The folks at Silent Theatre were smart to pick up on The Set-Up. Although the narrative is essentially sentimental, the climax is contrived, and the structure is so like that of The Wild Party that you can sense March's anxious straining to repeat his earlier success, The Set-Up's hard-bitten diction, rancid world view, and period setting—there's an obvious foretaste of noir here—make it great fodder for the company's stylized, often almost neoexpressionist aesthetic.
Adapter/director Nick DuFloth clearly understands this. At times, his stage images look as if they ought to flicker from moment to moment like Murnau's Nosferatu. But there's also something vague and approximate about the whole effort. Makeup looks smeared on, causing actors to appear unwashed rather than sinister or decadent. Group scenes are chaotic, and fights are too careful. And Toby Lee Taylor leaves a crucial void as Pansy: though he communicates the almost addled diffidence of Pansy the ex-con, never quite looking anyone in the eye, he fails to offer any inkling of the panther inside.
The only really sharp thing onstage is Nathan Paul, who throws himself into Cohn with Faginish enthusiasm. The rest feels like a sketch for a drawing you'll want to see when it's done.