Photo by J.J. Hickey

Ours is the era of reassuring suspicions, a time when Americans draw deep comfort from the act of being wary of other people’s passions, causes and even declarative sentences — in the Age of Suspicion, this very statement is suspect. Through the prism of irony and dismissal, activists for any fervently held position are seen to have not beliefs but “agendas,” which, in turn, are rooted in “myths” rather than formed as helpful responses to real problems. How exhilarating — and how sad — then, it is to find in the art of the Great Depression an expression of pure, unadulterated anger.

The MET Theater is currently home to a knockout production of U.S.A., Paul Shyre’s 1959 stage redaction of John Dos Passos’ sprawling trilogy of novels written between 1930 and 1937: The 42nd Parallel, Nineteen Nineteen and The Big Money. Some 30 years ago, playwright Howard Sackler supervised a spirited recording of these works for Caedmon Records that included the voices of Ed Begley, Rip Torn and George Grizzard. Aside from this effort, however, U.S.A. is usually incarnated onstage in the form of Shyre’s six-actor interpretation, which had won Dos Passos’ blessings at the time of its writing.

For two hours, the play follows the life of public-relations magnate J. Ward Moorehouse — or rather, one should say, the career of Moorehouse, because the thrust of Dos Passos’ critique of America aims at our emphasis on material success and the valuation of profession over community. Early on, Dos Passos recognized the power of public relations, how it was significantly more important than mere advertising in that the latter merely placed a product in the public’s eye, while PR not only did that but also shaped how we perceived the product. In other words, spin. He also knew how vital public relations was both to a destructive system like capitalism and to the formulation of international policy.

Crosscut with the story of Moorehouse are short biographies of American figures and a collage of newspaper headlines, snatches of songs and advertising slogans that accompany America’s development from the start of the 20th century (“Churches Greet New Century!” “Labor Greets New Century!” “Nation Greets New Century!” “Nation Greets Century’s Dawn!”) to the stock-market crash of 1929 (“Wall Street Stunned,” “President Says Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner”). It is in all these facets that we witness the optimism of a young democracy become the hubris of an empire.

Although Shyre’s play originally employed a six-member ensemble to portray an army of characters, Hickey uses seven: Gillian Doyle, Ronit Feinglass, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, Steve O’Connor, Joe Reynolds, Clarinda Ross and Marc Saint-Pierre. They are simply but authentically costumed by Hickey, whose cast and choreographer Kitty McNamee are completely up to the rigors of this demanding work, which requires rapid movement, dancing and furious exits.

The MET show is a committed and heartfelt evening exploring what it meant to be an American at a time of enormous opportunity — not merely the opportunity to make money, but to turn a country — and the world — in a more equitable and peaceful direction. To watch these seven actors embody a nation turning its back on social justice to embrace personal wealth is breathtaking — and heartbreaking. Hickey’s production eschews most of the period ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Charleston music that usually runs through the Shyre version, relying instead upon an original score he has composed with musical director Dan Redfeld. It gives the show a fresh feel and ensures that in this telling America never becomes Americana.

Long before Jack Kerouac, Dos Passos created a great mural of American life by employing Sandburg-like prose jazzed up to a jackhammer staccato, often running words together and ignoring punctuation. U.S.A. is at once a debunking of America’s patriotic myths and a lamentation for its nonconformist children. Again and again, in his short historical profiles, Dos Passos reminds us of how even the most successful and accepted of these were somehow, at the end of their lives, outsiders in their own country, if not physically exiled from its bosom. In Dos Passos’ America, everyone is a man without a country, from inventors to rabble-rousers. These include Luther Burbank (“He was one of the grand old men until the churches and the congregations got wind that he was an infidel and believed in Darwin”), Big Bill Haywood (the Wobbly who died a broken man in Moscow) and Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the electronics genius and socialist who “was the most valuable piece of apparatus General Electric had until he wore out and died.” That kind of stuff.

Here Dos Passos uncovered an important secret of American history: All our heroes seem to end miserably. Dos Passos’ estrangement was understandable, given that he was an illegitimate child who traveled throughout the world with his parents and who later drove an ambulance during WWI. He was also briefly part of the Paris-based Lost Generation and eventually settled into internal exile in Greenwich Village, where he became an experimental playwright. One of the MET production’s more gripping moments is Dos Passos’ sad paean to dancer Isadora Duncan, the ur–bohemian expatriate who couldn’t hold her liquor or hold on to money and men. As pianist Redfeld plays a loop from a Chopin prelude, you wonder if Duncan, more than Marx, embodied the novelist’s wandering soul.

A full-blown stage re-imagining of Dos Passos’ novels outside of Shyre’s adaptation is sometimes discussed but seldom, if ever, attempted. The technical reasons are obvious: U.S.A.’s enormous length and cast of characters, combined with the jagged jump-cutting of period media make this one daunting enterprise. It would take a Peter Brook, perhaps, to attempt to present the trilogy’s ideas, and a Trevor Nunn to make them palatable to a large audience.

U.S.A.’s absence from film and television probably has less to do with AV equipment than with political will, which is just not present in today’s climate of suspicion and political languor. Dos Passos’ books were written in the throes of the Great Depression, and they noisily announced the author’s left-wing bias at the time, threaded as their pages are by snippets of The Communist Manifesto and “The Internationale.” But Dos Passos was far too worldly an observer of his times to succumb to the agitprop fantasies of his partisan comrades — even those on the masthead of The New Masses, on which he served. His novels were not billboards for socialism or avant-garde art, which is why they have not become quaint relics of Modernism but continue to fascinate to this day.

The viewer should be reminded and warned that as critical as Shyre’s retelling of U.S.A. is of American materialism, the play is, after all, a version that received Dos Passos’ approval — long after the author had moved considerably starboard from his early leftist views to become, in effect, the Whittaker Chambers of literature. And while the stage production does not disavow Dos Passos’ core humanism, it does pull some punches. Gone are the biographies of radicals Haywood, Joe Hill and Robert La Follette; gone, too, are the references from the anthology’s famous 1938 prologue (with which Shyre concludes the show) to those “dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins” and the “bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts.” Likewise, the dedication of the Unknown Soldier appears in somewhat bowdlerized form onstage, which is to say, when the question is asked, “How did they pick John Doe?” the answer is minus Nineteen Nineteen’s helpful imperative, “Make sure he ain’t a dinge, boys. Make sure he ain’t a guinea or a kike.” More important, Shyre chooses to build his theater version upon the story of the ad exec and his protégé, as opposed to Fainy McCreary and his proletarian odyssey into radical labor politics.

Yet even this softening of U.S.A.’s angular political profile does not dim its power onstage, as the MET’s production demonstrates. We still behold two generations of fatally idealistic Americans as they dream of empire and blindly grope toward an unknown destiny that would include the Great Depression and WWII, and end with an appointment in suburbia. There is one last difference between novel and play that jumps out at the viewer, and it is Shyre’s critical word substitution at the very end, when Dos Passos’ swirling definition of America concluded with “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” Onstage it becomes “But mostly U.S.A. is the lives of its people.”

It’s as though Shyre, with the nodding approval of a now-conservative Dos Passos, had, at the twilight of the Eisenhower years, felt that the original was too subversive, too incendiary —or, perhaps, simply too dated. Today, the phrase would probably be amended to say that U.S.A. is mostly the lifestyles of its consumers, or something else that further stresses the detachment of citizens from the idea of nation, something not as declarative as the novelist’s words, which, in any case, would today only raise deep suspicions.

U.S.A.: A Dramatic Revue | By PAUL SHYRE & JOHN DOS PASSOS | At the MET THEATER | 1089 N. Oxford St., Hollywood | Through April 1

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