On June 16, 1937, The Cradle Will Rock debuted -- just barely -- in direct defiance of the American government, whose Federal Theatre Project had financed the pro-labor musical. A lot of talent, some of it not yet fully ripened, collaborated on that fervent production. It was directed by 22-year-old Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. The activist cast included Howard Da Silva, whose leftist politics eventually led to his being blacklisted by Hollywood. Jean Rosenthal, the lowly stage manager, would in time evolve into the most acclaimed theater-lighting designer of the 20th century.
Under the actor-friendly direction of Brad Schwartz, all these charismatic characters are portrayed nigh to perfection. Jason Cannon lustily devours the role of the egomaniacal Welles. By contrast, Doug Shelton as John Houseman barely moves, barely breathes. Shelton's brittle, time-bomb performance is mesmerizing (no small feat when you consider how much of the exposition he must deliver). Blaise Azzara's unctuous Da Silva, Michelle Hand's feisty Rosenthal, Sharen Camille's tentative leading lady -- all these performances register, and the play serves them well. At its best, It's All True is a veritable machine gun, bursting with staccato dialogue as it chronicles the many land mines inherent in the collaborative process: the casting, the rehearsals, the bruised egos. Along the way, the play even asks the hypothetical question: Who is the bigger bully here -- a federal government that did, after all, underwrite this production, or a director who brusquely imposed his will on composer and cast simply because he was able to bellow the loudest?
But when the play leaves the claustrophobic confines of the Maxine Elliot Theater and strays into cul-de-sacs about Welles' peevish wife, and especially when the script bogs down in flashbacks about Blitzstein's sexually ambivalent marriage to an enigmatic, now-dead wife who haunts his memory, It's All True perversely saps its own energy.
Then there's the matter of that problematic title. When the play premiered in Canada, the author wrote in a program note, "It's All True is not all true." But the HotHouse playbill does not carry that disclaimer. We're left to assume that what we see onstage is not only true but factual, and it ain't necessarily so: Welles and Blitzstein did not first meet after a performance of Doctor Faustus; Da Silva did not tear down the Italian flag at the Venice Theater; on June 16, as their production was being closed, Welles and Houseman were not holed up in Houseman's theater office (they were hiding out in the ladies' powder room in the basement).
Some variances can be dismissed as dramatic license. But when there's this much license, at some point the viewer has the right to doubt the veracity of everything that's occurring onstage. Did Da Silva really have an affair with his leading lady? And did she really almost torpedo the opening night?
So it comes down to this: When centered on the universal vagaries of the creative process -- this spirited play and this dynamic production provide riveting theater. But as a chronicle of the literal facts of the matter, It's All True is not all that trustworthy. If you really want to know more about the making of The Cradle Will Rock, get thee to a library.