Furthermore, the particular characters who troop in out of the blizzard belong to that faintly Cro-Magnon vein that so fascinates the contemporary dramatist. There is a seedy "chantoose" with a slack jaw, a yowl of a voice, and a habit of stopping conversations dead with her thick-witted efforts to sound cultivated.· There is a mule of a cowhand dogging her heels, belligerently insisting that he's going to carry her over the state line and add her to the livestock on his farm, blankly unable to grasp the notion that cattle and chanteuses - even low-down chanteuses - are not the same breed. Add to these two a slovenly, verse-spouting drunk who has been chased out of a dozen respectable communities for molesting little girls, and you begin to expect a play that is not only motionless but morbid to boot.
Because the lady of the nightclubs can't escape her cowboy she is forced to cock a speculative, not-very-bright eye at him to see what virtues may possibly lurk beneath that cast-iron skull. Because the cowboy can't toss his kicking and screaming captive over his shoulder and haul her pell-mell off to the ranch-house, he is forced to wonder what kind of idiot heart beats beneath that shrill and sharp-fanged exterior. Though the universe outside may have paused for a snowfall, the face-to-face folk in Grace's Diner suddenly move. They move circuitously, suspiciously - sometimes slashing out as if to scratch away everything that is stubborn and superficial, sometimes making gestures that are as gentle as they are fumbling. The stage begins to glow, the characters expand and expand as they get warmer in their game of blindman's-buff, and the first thing you know you're in love with the lot of them.
But because author Inge has had the wit and skill to show us that these barnyard braves are fundamentally helpless in their concealed affection for one another, because he has been able to dig out the secret and embarrassed decencies in each of them, the veneer of animality fades away and a very touching lost-soul simplicity pushes forward. The caterwauling gives way to awkward, only half-trusting confession: the singer has had an almost useless hope that one day someone would respect her; the cowboy is not only a self-conscious virgin, he is incapable of shooting a deer if the deer's eyes strike him as looking slightly sad. In final effect, both boy and girl must whittle away their hard-won and prideful facades before they can come together; the whittling and the coming together, are wonderfully funny to behold.
If the author's work is penetrating, director and players are prepared to match it in depth. Harold Clurman has won beautiful performances from the entire company: from Elaine Stritch, who is positively and unexpectedly luminous as a restaurant proprietor who won't serve cheese because she doesn't like cheese; from Anthony Ross, weeping into his bourbon as he decides not to make a play for an unspoiled little waitress; from Phyllis Love as the starry-eyed waitress, Lou Polan as a patient sheriff, Crahan Denton as a guitar-strumming buddy of the rancher, and Patrick McVey as the bus driver. Miss Stanley's authority has grown from play to play until she is now an expert in mass hypnosis: there is no other way of explaining her success with "That Old Black Magic" in the face of the fact that she can't sing, or even strike up random acquaintance with, a note. When this tow-headed and drawling spellbinder is poking her head over a counter to listen to a ballad, respectfully requesting that there be no table service during her number, or trying to disillusion a man at the same time that she hopes he won't be disillusioned, she is the stuff of which stars wish they were made.
Albert Salmi, after eye-opening minor performances in "End as a Man" and "The Rainmaker," roars into his first leading role like a hurricane coming of age. Promising to make his captive as happy as a mud hen, ordering any kind of pie so long as it has meringue on it, recoiling in bafflement at the suggestion that there might be something wrong with his romantic approach, he proves himself a player of more than comic interest: there is stature and sensitivity to be drawn on, too.
And Boris Aronson's setting-a colorful wayside beanery with windows that look out on an infinity of telephone poles, slowly disappearing under a swirl of snow- is a perfect home for these imperfect but captivating people.