March 25, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The inferno was the most deleterious industrial catastrophe in NYC history and ranked the fourth highest in casualties from an industrial accident in US history. It was also the most mortiferous tragedy in Manhattan until 9/11. The sweatshop blaze, located in the Asch Building on 23-29 Washington Place, resulted in the deaths of 146 workers, most of whom were Jewish and Italian immigrants. Because of locked doors, people jumped to their deaths and created outrage with the community and politicians alike. But the fire’s lasting legacies were not just the deaths, it was the legislation passed to improve factory safety standards and the creation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Currently, the Americas Off-Broadway series offers a production that exhumes the ghosts of that tragedy and the lives it affected with Triangle. Triangle is a 120 minute drama that recounts the adulterous liaison between “Big” Tim Sullivan and actress Margaret Holland against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the events that followed. When young, beautiful Margaret goes to audition for Big Tim at his headquarters, he is already known as “The Boss of the Bowery.” Along with being a one of the prominent politicos of Tammany Hall, he was also the kingfish of various criminal enterprises which included prostitution, gambling and extortion. Margaret, a highbrow, progressive woman, becomes seduced by Tim’s immoral, yet captivating demeanor. Tim immediately recognizes Margaret’s beauty and casts her in his productions out of state. While Margaret continues to tour on the acting circuit, she and Tim fall in love and have an illegitimate daughter named Mary Catherine. But the Triangle Factory fire forever changes Margaret, Tim and Mary Catherine. Margaret tirelessly works as a reformist, causing a strain on her relationship with her growing daughter, and blames Tim for taking kickbacks. Guilt spurs Tim into using his political muscle to aide the reformers and sponsors legislation limiting the maximum number of hours women were forced to work despite his failing health from syphilis.
One aspect I find with Off-Broadway productions is that they are generally hit or miss. This production teeters somewhere in the middle. At best Triangle is a nondescript tribute to the legacies of the women and men who perished in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, focusing more on the love affair between Tim and Margaret instead of the immigrant men and women who toiled and died in the fire. It reminded me of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, a think piece that provided a glimpse into the lives of people placed in a stressful situation. The acting in Triangle impressed me more than the story itself, and when the play did focus on the fire specifically, it showed flashes of brilliance. Ruba Audeh is superb, playing dual roles as a young Jewish girl and a former Triangle Shirtwaist worker turned hooker – her scenes are some of the most telling, emotional moments of the play and will painfully stick with you like burnt clothing on skin. Donna Davis and Dennis Wit are very engaging as Cathleen Murphy and Izzy Weissman, a common law couple on Big Tim’s payroll. Their banter and narration throughout the production not only offered comic relief, but prevented the show from dragging. They, along with Audeh, are without a doubt the most memorable characters and performances. Joe Gately, Ashley C. Williams and Michaela McPherson round out the cast giving fine performances as Tim Sullivan, Margaret Holland and Mary Catherine.
Triangle’s final performance at 59E59 Theatre is May 1. It is my conclusion that parts of this show were greater than its sum. Overall, Triangle is a satisfactory play that produced solid performances, but the jury is still out on whether this drama did or did not deliver on its commitment to honor the victims of the fire.
Photos: Carol Rosegg