Triangle, now on stage at 59e59 Theater’s Americas Off Broadway series, takes on a difficult topic - the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. In order to make the story of the fire more relatable, the authors tell it through the narrative of Tammany politician, “Big Tim” Sullivan and his mistress Margaret Holland. Big Tim ran the lower east side, where the fire occurred. After the fire, Big Tim, a State Senator, changed the labor laws to prevent sweatshops and unsafe working conditions going forward.
Triangle is a valiant attempt of storytelling, and it is sometimes successful, but it more often seems an interesting history lesson, not an engaging play. We don’t stay with the characters long enough to really empathize with the tragedy through their eyes.
Our narrators, Izzy Weissman and his partner Cathleen Murphy, are employees and fans of Big Tim - as well as stereotypically Jewish and Irish in order to demonstrate Big Tim’s diversity credentials. They address each other across from opposite sides of the stage, reminiscing about Big Tim, his mistress and the fire. Some of these remembrances are played out, and others are not. Dennis Wit, as Izzy, and Donna Davis, as Cathleen, slide ably between narration and characterization. And Miss Davis makes the strongest emotional connection to the audience, part mother hen and part confessor.
Joe Gately gets the only juicy role, playing Big Tim to the hilt. Mr. Gately makes the most of Big Tim’s easy demeanor, intelligent banter and later his guilt that the fire happened in his district. Mr. Gately shows his affectionate side as he falls for Margaret Holland, an aspiring actress, played by Ashley C. Williams. The audience has to trust Mr. Gately on this count, because not much about Margaret Holland is engaging - beyond a nice set of legs. She is a prig, a snob and a half hearted feminist – bemoaning the condition of women at the time, but not doing much to change it. A little more on the “why” they fell in love is necessary.
And yet compared to their daughter, Mary Catherine, Margaret Holland is like the sun on a warm spring day. Mary Catherine, played by Michaela McPherson, is written as a petulant tween. Nearly every moment with her on stage is uncomfortable- on purpose, true, but still uncomfortable. Her pouting is even more insufferable after the fire kills over 100 women and girls.
Jack Gilhooley wrote the piece with Daniel Czitrom, a History Professor at Mount Holyoke. Their collaboration shows too often as Triangle switches between history, melodrama, and political reenactment without truly finding a singular voice. The director, Stephan Morrow, tries to give us Cathleen as the focal point, but Donna Davis isn’t on stage at some critical times and when she is missing, the show goes rudderless.
Triangle clocks in at little over 2 hours, but still feels the like story was a bit rushed. It would have benefitted from a little less music hall and a little more emotion.
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Triangle (website & tickets)
Playwrights: Jack Gilhooley and Daniel Czitrom
Director: Stephan Morrow
Cast: Ruba Auden, Donna Davis, Joe Gately, Michaela McPherson, Ashley C. Williams, Dennis Wit