‘How to Succeed’ falls short on contemporary feminist critique
“Just have courage and memorize the simple rules that follow. If you truly wish to be among the lucky few, you can!”
With these words, audiences at Motyer-Fancy Theatre received their first taste of the perpetually optimistic, unflinchingly Machiavellian, and frequently hilarious self-help book-turned-musical: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
The irony of this pronouncement, and indeed of the entire play, is that modern audiences are less likely than their parents to agree that the average person can ‘succeed in business,’ regardless of whether they try or not.
This production comes on the heels of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, professor Lauren Rivera’s ground-breaking book on class relations in America, in which she writes that only 64 per cent of Americans still believe it is possible to climb from rags to riches.
More than ever, there is a sense that the egalitarian ideals at the basis of the ‘American Dream’ are crumbling, which is what makes How to Succeed’s satire so biting. The play follows an ambitious window washer, “Ponty” Finch, played by Xavier Gould, on his journey from the mailroom to the boardroom of the ‘World Wide Wicket Company.’ In the first scene, Finch enlists the help of a seemingly omniscient book, voiced by John Perkin, to smooth talk his way through the ranks of corporate America.
Gould imbued his character with the impish charm the role demands; I doubt there is another actor in Sackville who can put as much meaning into a single raised eyebrow. His allure was also appropriately superficial, reminiscent of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. At one point, Finch’s secretary asks a colleague what the opposite of a “sex maniac” is. The punch line: a businessman.
Gould’s performance was contrasted by Erik Garf’s energetic interpretation of Bud, the CEO’s nephew and Finch’s nemesis. While Gould’s character was sober and calculating, Garf’s portrayal of Bud amped up the play’s comic elements with a strong physical stage presence. When Garf delivered his often-angry lines, he spoke with his whole body. The resulting chemistry between Gould and Garf was captivating.
Rounding out the cast were the men’s secretaries. Hedy Larue, the archetypical femme fatale, was played by Kylie Fox with a convincing New York accent and consistently perfect comic timing. One of the biggest laughs of the night came when the poker-straight Mr. Bratt, played by Stephen Buckley, asked for Hedy’s “vital statistics.”
“Thirty-nine, twenty-two, thirty-eight,” Fox deadpanned.
Hedy’s entrance also stood out as an example of the powerful lighting design that added visual and emotional depth to the production. When Fox’s character entered from center stage, she was haloed by vortex of broken amber light while the entire stage was doused in a rich wash of purple.
The play was a fun, lighthearted musical that was a clear audience favourite. It was impossible not to have a good time as the viewers were swept up in the play’s slapstick antics and beautifully choreographed dance numbers. What university student can’t relate to a song about caffeine addiction?
At the same time, I found that the performance lacked context. The set and costume design kept the play solidly in the 1960s, which limited its ability to comment on gender roles and corporate structures in the modern world. If there had been an effort to incorporate contemporary references into the play, the obvious portrayals of systemic sexism would have had a new potential to shock, and hopefully to prompt much-needed discussions about how elitist and dehumanising the corporate world remains.
For example, last year Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts staged a feminist production of How to Succeed which costumed the play’s male characters in dresses. In this way, the director, Lily Katz, reinforced the idea that patriarchal institutions and systems of oppression can exist, and indeed flourish, even if women are represented on corporate boards.
By contrast, Mount Allison’s production of How to Succeed was unlikely to inspire audiences to think critically about gender roles. At best, the play was simply an entertaining diversion, and at worst, it could be argued that the performance actually fostered a reactionary view of feminism, allowing audiences to look back on the 1960s and reflect on “how far we’ve come,” without drawing attention to the real problems still faced by women throughout the world.
In the words of British feminist Laurie Penney, “public ‘career feminists’ have been more concerned with getting more women into ‘boardrooms,’ when the problem is that there are altogether too many boardrooms, and none of them are on fire.”