The Beautiful People

William Saroyan
Finborough Theatre
(2008)

William Saroyan (1908-1981), the prolific American playwright and short story writer, is, for most people in Britain, an unknown quantity. In America today the most likely place to find a performance of any of his plays would be on a university campus.

Perhaps the immediate thing to say about The Beautiful People is that it is a great improvement on Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All, which opened the Finborough’s ambitious Saroyan centennial season.

Saroyan never was a commercial writer and the only reason The Beautiful People – a one-act “fantasy written half in jest and half in earnest” - was produced on Broadway in 1941 was because he subsidized it. It ran for four months

He had a strong belief in human goodness. He wanted people to live their lives through their imaginations. His leading character is a 15-year-old loafer who is actively opposed to work, loves mice, and writes one-word novels.

The role would be unbearable if it were played by an actual 15-year-old but it gains by being played by an older actor who comes across as having not grown-up and seems, in Kyle Soller’s extraordinary, frenetic performance, to have a Tourette condition.

The family lives in an old house in San Francisco and the only money they have is a monthly cheque which is actually meant for a man who has long been dead. The head of the household argues that each month he gives the money back by spending it.

The boy’s sister falls in love with a man she meets in a library. His elder brother returns from New York, safe and sound, playing his cornet. The haunting sound is heard throughout the play.

Four people drop by: an old lady (a former lover of the father), a black companion, an Irish priest and an insurance man. The latter comes with the intention of putting a stop to the money his firm is paying out, but he takes such a liking to the family that he wants to be part of it.

Everything about Vincent Shiels’ performance – his make-up, his manner, his voice, his timing – is perfect. Shiels’ insurance man is very funny and sheer delight from the moment he comes on.

The boy’s father (Paul Greenwood) becomes a mouthpiece for Saroyan’s miracle-of-life philosophy: “Try to be alive. You’ll be dead soon enough.” His whimsical and sentimental zest for life was characteristic of so many plays and films of the Depression era.

The Beautiful People feels like the work of an alcoholic (which Saroyan was) and also the work of an undergraduate (which Saroyan was not). It was written when he was 33.

Saroyan wrote 22 plays. His best is The Time of Your Life, which won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. The Finborough Theatre is staging it November.

Robert Tanitch