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Before Mapplethorpe, before the NEA Four, before Raving Rudy and his Rude-Art Road Show entertained America nightly on the news, there were Marc Blitzstein, Orson Welles, and the sensational drama of The Cradle Will Rock. Now there are Jack Marshall and the Arlington County arts establishment “facing off” over a production of Marc Blitzstein’s 1936 labor screed, making for public theater of an interestingly problematic sort.

What Marshall and his American Century Theater are doing—framing their Cradle with an elaborate audience-participation homage to the rabble-rousing musical’s history—is an idea that at first sounded, to be honest, like just about the cheesiest thing this year. But it’s executed so thoroughly, and with such energy, that it works beautifully. Too beautifully, perhaps, in that it threatens to upstage the main attraction.

A little backstory: Cradle was a taxpayer-funded endeavor of the Depression-era Federal Theater Project (FTP), a passionately leftist argument about the labor movement conceived in a year that saw labor unrest unlike any America had known. Congressional ire over the FTP’s bureaucratic parent, the Works Projects Administration—and over Cradle’s intemperate anti-Establishment tone—resulted in a last-minute confrontation that found director Welles and his opening-night audience locked out of the Maxine Elliot Theater, with their props, sets, and costumes (all paid for with Uncle Sam’s cash) locked inside.

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Welles, an instinctive showman even at age 21, managed to turn the disaster into an opportunity: He marched the audience 20 blocks through the New York streets to an empty theater, sat the composer at the piano, and convinced most of his cast, which had been prohibited from performing, to speak their parts from seats in the audience when the time came—as, he said, good American citizens are wont to do in any political discussion. The result was a triumph that spawned a legend, and the opening night of The Cradle Will Rock remains one of the great milestones of American theater.

If only for that reason, American Century’s revival is a gift: How often do we get the chance to see firsthand what a historical fuss was about? Never mind that the play itself seems, after decades of labor corruption and years of downsizing-era disenchantment with corporate America, simultaneously naive and obvious. Never mind that the cast sometimes gets by more on commitment than on chops—though Robert Hall Jr., Jacqueline Champlain Manger, and Kathryn Fuller each contribute moments of real power as, respectively, a labor-organizer foreman, a desperate streetwalker, and a working-class woman who speaks with the play’s most plangent voice of conscience.

And never mind that Marshall’s performance-arty re-creation of the lockout—which sets TV cameras and perturbed stage managers and mock-confused actors milling about in the packed, overheated Gunston lobby amid his, no doubt, genuinely confused subscribers—turns out to be more immediately compelling than Blitzstein’s raw broadsides against grasping capitalists and the whores (religion, the arts, and the media, to name just three) in their harem. Cradle is still another in American Century’s idiosyncratic and always intriguing series of choices, and a more than worthwhile way to spend an evening.

Less idiosyncratic, certainly, but no less worthwhile is The Confidential Clerk, the product of an idealism as passionately held, if not as emphatically expressed, as that which set Cradle rocking. But whereas Blitzstein poured his heart out on behalf of the working masses and their collective need, T.S. Eliot wanted his Clerk to make a case for the worth of the individual and his aspirations. The trials of this earnest comedy’s title character teach him, and presumably are meant to teach us, that chasing our dreams makes for quieter karma than does dutifully performing the chores society expects of us. If that’s a message we’re not desperately in need of here at the tail end of the narcissistic ’90s, it’s still neatly and amusingly packaged in unrhymed verse as crystalline and graceful as any in the canon.

The plot, a tangled seriocomic business about two bastards, one orphan, and the unlikely coincidences that link them all, simultaneously celebrates and sends up theatrical traditions as old as the Greeks. (Eliot took part of his story, in fact, from Eurypides.) And once the deus—here in the person of Laura Giannarelli’s broadly overacted paragon of baby-fostering commoner rectitude—has made machina, what the play presents is a gently optimistic answer to a concern that’s probably as old as the form.

Eliot’s characters, like most of us, yearn desperately to be somehow special, somehow other than ordinary (and therefore uniquely valuable). It’s the same need that speaks in Eliot’s The Waste Land and, for what it’s worth, in that rather shallower movie-of-the-moment, Fight Club: Both critique a sterile, empty society in which people are merely cogs or, worse, merely consumers. And it’s the same need that fuels our own obsession with celebrity; if we can’t be special, we can at least worship someone who seems to be.

Eliot’s idea is to turn that longing on its head, to argue that ordinary is enough, as long as it’s an ordinary we choose. Do what you long to do, he says, be who you want to be—and don’t worry if you’re not the best at it. Which, coming from a renowned Christian apologist, sounds suspiciously like “Follow your bliss.”

Still, the idea is ingratiatingly presented in the Washington Stage Guild’s production, which is being mounted at Source Theatre now that religious collusion with rampant capitalism has driven the poor company out of its longtime home. (Hmmm, perhaps there’s more commonality between Cradle and Clerk than meets the eye.) Jason Gilbert may take what Eliot says about poor Colby’s being “cold” and “detached” a shade too literally—he does well enough by the play’s deft, conversational verse, but never quite creates a human character, in part because he’s trying so hard to embody that reserve. Others, though, notably John Dow as a well-meaning aristocrat who never quite finds his own happiness, get right to the warm, humanist heart of the matter. CP