LOS ANGELES THEATER. A play which is rewarded with four curtain calls at the close of the first act and which finds the audience on its feet applauding for the curtain after it drops on the closing scene, surely has something to back it besides the facile phrases of the enthusiastic advance agent or the deftly rounded sentences which that worthy injects into the advertising columns of the newspaper.
Such was the reception given Frank Mayo in "Pudd'nhead Wilson" at the Los Angeles Theater last night by an audience which knows a good thing when it sees it.
That famous California humorist, Mark Twain, built a great reputation on far lesser performances than the delineation of the character of that quaint Missouri lawyer, David Wilson, nick-named "Pudd'nhead" by his chuckleheaded neighbors in Dawson, who were too thick-skulled to understand the sweetness of his character or too shallow to fathom the deeps of his understanding
In all the domain of stage seeming it is difficult to call to mind a more lovable being than is Frank Mayo as Pudd'nhead Wilson. It is not a seeming at all--it is the real man made so manifest to us by the art of the player that he is like a bit of nature set out to us in the real guise of some one we have known of in our boyhood's days.
This briefless lawyer whose shingle swings in the balmy breeze of old Missouri for twenty-three years before fortune grants him a client, is the central figure of this touching and telling play, but strong as is the vivid personality of the star, there are about him other characters drawn with skillful strokes of the author's pen and fashioned into dramatic form by a hand quite as deft and masterly as was that of their creators.
There is a strong story in "Pudd'nhead Wilson," but pointed and interesting as it is, its character drawing is manifestly the chief phase of its superiority.
The tale unfolds about a female slave who has a boy child thirty-one parts white and yet born a slave like herself. On the day that this slave's master is about to have his own child christened, the slave's babe and the master's babe are lying asleep together in the same crib. By an accident the slave's child is taken to the christening. The mother immediately discovers the error, but her cupidity is aroused; she sees a chance to save her boy from being "sold away down the river," and locks up the secret of the exchange of children in her own bosom, posing thereafter as the mother of the other child.
Enter "Pudd'nhead Wilson" with his fad for taking impressions of thumbs on bits of glass.
With the zeal of a numismatist or a bug collector, Wilson proceeds to record the thumb marks of the two sleeping babes, filing away the record with names and date in his great cabinet of other like impressions. In the years following he takes other impressions of the same children's thumbs, but of course their names have been reversed, a secret that is disclosed to the audience in the prologue, but of course known otherwise only to the slave mother, Roxy.
The motif of the piece is in the showing that blood will tell, however disguised. The real slave, though sent away to be educated at Yale and brought up as a gentleman, turns out a thief and a rascal. The white child, though in bondage, shows the heart and soul of a gentleman.
It is through the thumb marks collected by the caseless Missouri lawyer that the deception is at last revealed, the real slave disclosed as a thief, attempted assassin and blackguard, and the white child restored to his own.
Though this is, briefly, the story there are side lights upon it that make it glow like camp fires along the hills. It is rich with humor and quaint with wisdom. It is tense with feeling and vibrant with pathos. It touches the eyes to tears and sets the laughter rippling about the lips. Its atmosphere is as sweet as the odor from freshly mown meadows, where the larks warble, and it leaves a taste in the mouth like the remembrance of lush berries plucked from the grassy uplands when we were boys and girls.
Roxy is a striking bit in "Pudd'nhead Wilson," and Eleanor Moretti plays it with the rarest excellence. There is the devil in her eye and the fire of Africa's suns beneath the peachy surface of her skin. Her use of the negro patois is somewhat difficult for the dull and unaccustomed ear to catch, but it is full of flavor and her laugh has a gurgle in it that suggests the flow of a seductive draught from a small-throated decanter.
Lucille Laverne as "Pudd'nhead's" sister Patsy is also immensely clever, and Frances Grahame as Rowy, the niece of the thumb-mark faddist, does some of the neatest bits of acting in the play.
Arnold Daly as Chambers, the enslaved white boy, was capital. Frank E. Aiken made a delightful York Driscoll, and Frank Champeau, as Tom Driscoll, the palmed-off babe, did most excellent work in an unpleasant part. He was a splendid villain, and made one of the big hits of the piece.
Newton Chisnell, as the sheriff, did some most clever comedy work, and Adolph Klauber and George Hallton not only made up excellently as the twins, but assumed the roles with much credit. The entire company is surpassingly good--so clever, indeed, that it seems scarcely fair to particularize.
Of Mr. Mayo's work it is scarcely necessary to add more than to say that it is by far the greatest work of the great player. There is a study in every shift of the figure, in every pose, in every quirk of speech and twist of the lips, and in the small bits of business he is a master.
The man or woman who fails to see "Pudd'nhead Wilson" will miss one of the richest dramatic treats of the last dozen years in the history of the American stage. It will be presented again tonight, the engagement closing tomorrow evening. There will also be a matinee tomorrow afternoon.