Seeing Mary Poppins (at the Hippodrome) and The Whipping Man (at Centerstage) in the span of a week was a peculiar, almost jarring, experience for me. These two productions couldn't be more different, right?
After thinking about it, it occurred to me that both plays focus on the “the help”—a nanny and a pair of emancipated slaves (Simon and John) and deal with households in various forms of distress. They each address independence and self-reliance in that Mary Poppins has a feminist streak—especially in the film adaptation, where Mrs. Banks is a suffragette—and Whipping Man deals with civil rights and religious freedom. Both have characters that make unlikely items appear as if by magic—the children marvel as Mary Poppins pulls hat racks and lamps from her bag, and Simon’s eyes pop when John shows him the whiskey and fine china he’s found/looted. Key characters have an integral relationship to gravity, as one defies it and another struggles with it. Mary Poppins takes to the skies aided by that iconic umbrella, and Caleb, the former slave owner, has his leg amputated and spends practically the entire play prostrate. And both playwrights have strong ties to old school British culture. Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book for Mary Poppins, created Downton Abbey, and Whipping Man’s Matthew Lopez was playwright-in-residence at the Old Globe Theatre in London.
So there you have it, more alike than you might think.
But then again, I’m the guy who compares Downton Abbey to The Wire.
[Mary Poppins photo courtesy of Broadway Across America, Whipping Man photo by Richard Anderson]