"Next week: 'East Lynne'!"
Until I saw that play last summer, I had no idea why that phrase was so funny. Prof. Will Stackman insisted it was typical of a vast flood of sentimental melodramas of its day --- something like "The Drunkard" which was played straight in its heyday but as over-acted self-parody a century later. Though The Alarm Clock Theatre Company tried to do "East Lynn" straight, it had more twisted and intertwined intrigues and subterfuges than a season of "Dallas" and half a dozen plot-points hinging on people simply not blurting truth that would have made the story impossible. Not simply the style of writing passed this warhorse by --- the ambient reality that nurtured it did as well. And in the past week I saw three different plays ("The Streets of New York" at Northeastern, "Dangerous Corner" at Hovey, and "Springtime for Henry" at The Huntington) that dealt, in different ways, with thearical styles no longer stylish.
"The Streets of New York" was a Gilded Age melodrama by Dion Boucicault, but the show I saw was a musical parody of that original (Book & lyrics by Barry Alan Grael, musci by Richard B. Chodosh). The show started with a banker (Mat Arruda) responding to a run on his institution by stealing what money was left. At that very point a seacaptain (Adam Garcia) wandered in intending to deposit his life's savings and collapsing of a fatal heart attack! Twenty years later, the daughters of Gideon Bloodgood and Captain Fairweather --- one undeservedly rich (Leah Canali), the other undeservedly poor (Anna Waldron) --- just happened to fall in love with the same scion of a no-longer-rich family (Sean Morris). The poor were innocence personified, the rich exactly the reverse, and the hero unwilling to admit he had become one of the former rather than the latter.
No, it's not "East Lynne" and it wasn't even Boucicault, but Director Del Lewis saw to it that no one twirled a nefarious mustache or winked at an audience gradually warming to the artificiality of it all. Everyone maintained character, meant what they said, and never noticed the passage of time and taste. And when the only witness to the dirty deed (Demetrius Thomas) came back from California at the head of three sombrero'd Mexicans (Troy Cumbo, Adam Garcia, Sean Hopkins) --- all singing what might be called "The Ballad of The Black-Hearted Banker" to prove he knew the truth --- the parody became obvious.
The singing and two-piano accompaniment (Patrick Finlon & Tal Einhorn, all under Finlon's direction) lent an air of passionate gaity to the whole, as did an ingeniously abstract set by Ted Janello. Its centerpiece was a wide revolve that moved by actor-power, and whoever did the pushing managed to stay in character while doing so! A couple of arches made of pipes cut the space into rooms, or opened it, depending on how far the set revolved. And Zeynep Bakkal provided costumes --- ornate for swells, subdued for the poor --- that told each character's station at a glance.
In Boucicault's original, a scene outside Delmonico's plush restaurant --- with gaudily garbed guests on their way to lobster and pheasant dinners passing beggars and chestnut-sellers with nothing to eat but their chestnuts --- must have been a sharp socially critical moment. Here the light touch and the sincerity of the playing looked a bit more quaint than trenchant.
But then, times change, do they not?
The program tells me that J. B. Priestly wrote "Dangerous Corner" in one week in 1932, which means the play is exactly as old as I am! It, at least, wears quite well, and I thank Waltham's Hovey Players for inviting an old warhorse like me to the opening night of an old warhorse like it.
What the author did was throw seven people onto the stage and then made them explain to one another why they were there. It's a "drawing-room play" still tinged with English country living, though here moved to upstate New York. The elite of an old publishing firm is giving a dinner-party for two of its authors, one (Ronni Marshak) a back-listed mainstay, the other (Michelle Aguillon) celebrating her first novel --- "The Sleeping Dog" in which, she says, is Truth. The play, as apparently a lot were in its day, is wall-to-wall exposition, as off-hand remarks lead to curiosity, hints coalesce toward revelation, someone is always determined to "get to the bottom" of something, and everyone ends up not only confessing things everyone else knew or suspected, but moving on to truths no one, onstage or off, had possibly guessed.
For the time she is on stage --- when hints are dropped but the facade of witty reparte hides all --- the real star of the show is Ronni Marshak's left hand, as she giggles her coy way first through a sort of elegant hen-party, then around the entrance of the men, brandy-snifters still in hand and smelling of after-dinner cigars. After she presides over the laying of subtexts and traps, the remaining three couples (two married) take that "Dangerous Corner" and the fascinating slay-ride begins. (Yes, someone in the firm had got shot!)
Since the play's Three Acts (Does anything date a play more obviously than its TWO intermissions these days?) never leave John MacKenzie's comfortable living-room (with tastefully elaborate details by Michael Tonner and Bob Allen), Director Justin Budinoff keeps re-arranging his stage-pictures by making speakers advance on or withdraw from one another in attack or defense, positioning themselves for important speeches, or at one point retreating so far down-stage right as to flee the accusing eyes totally. And he has assigned each of the six an attitude --- and a secret.
It's John Tierney as company president who refuses to settle for half-truth about anything. Christine Connor as his wife retreats to social wit when tempers flare. Peter Floyd is a hot-head insisting his view of people and events must be correct, while Sally Oldham as his wife is nervously convinced everyone can see through her attempts to hide her own frustrating secret. Bruce Adams and Michelle Aguillon are the outcasts --- newer employees rather than family members chaffing at their lesser-class status, and each with a jaw-dropping secret belying the "reticent-lovebirds" situation everyone else assumes.
The show will run one more week at The Abbott Memorial Theatre. Perhaps it will not seem as gloriously funny as it did opening night, when an audience full of theater-wonks lept eagerly on every intricate twist and startling revelation of this continuously intriguing old play.
But I recommend it highly in any case.
The Huntington Theatre is much bigger than The Abbott Memorial,and so the big room of "Mr. Dewlap's flat" sports both pseudo-Greek stautuary inset into tall walls and the mounted heads of half a dozen African animals. There's a short staircase and a kind of balcony (suitable for the declamation of important speeches) before a bedroom door. James Noone the designer painted the walls a bright spring-time yellow, and at least one of Michael Krass' costumes is a green-and-white gown and peignoire-like robe that are frilly and insubstantial as a spring cloud. David Weiner's lights and Kurt Kellenberger's sound designs provide a believable thunderstorm for the opening of what would, in days gone by, be the opening of Act III, though in comedies lights are usually bang-up and then bang-down: curtain. The odd thing about the sound, though, is that, every time but one, when people turn on the Victrola out comes different music even though no one changed the record.
Oh, the play! Yes, well --- coincidentally enough, when Dewlip (Henry Dewlip. The play is called "Springtime for Henry" though I can't think why)... When Henry sternly forces his new pretty-but-prissily-moral secretary (Jessica Stone) to "take a letter" he begins with "May twenty-third, 1932...." And so, you see, even This play is apparently at least as old as I am! In fact critical-colleague Norm Gross remembers that, back when he was much too young to be allowed in to see such a racy comedy, it turned up for years every summer on the bill at one Boston playhouse. So it, too, must have been quite popular ... in its day.
But, back to the play.
It's the kind of sex-comedy wherein a husband (Jeremy Shamos) finally must admit that, since his old school chum (Christopher Fitzgerald) has given up seducing his wife they've grown so bored seeing each other all the time that he'd really wish he'd start up their affair again....to save their marriage, you see. But it's the sort of sex-comedy in which Henry "makes love" to the wife by sitting close with a right arm about her and, carefully, firmly fixing her left hand (twice) with His left hand onto his own left knee while he massages her upper arm --- and talks.
Well, there's a lot of talk ... about how bad, or indifferent these rich wastrels are about business, about how much the secretary thinks they need Taking In Hand and reforming, about how undignified it is to be attracted to a girl (It was 1932, when there Were "girls" of 24 who seemed happy to be called so) merely because she was prety, and about....well, not much else.
Frankly, "Springtime for Henry" is a cheap imitation of Noel Coward without the witty snap of dialogue or the genuine aire of decadent honesty. The one really sexy thing about the show are the backless period dresses adorning "The best figure in London". (I read somewhere that it was Coco Chanel, I think, whose "cutting her fabrics on the bias" made them cling like paint to the Fronts of such frocks as well.)
But about the play...
It is indeed energetically and inventively acted by everyone, especially Christoper Fitzgerald whose bouncy physicality and timing keep the dialogue alive. And at one point Jeremy Shamos and Mia Barron execute a parody (or hommage?) Rogers/Astaire dance routine all across the front of that big, wide Huntington stage for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Maybe its supposed to be an irrelevant dream sequence?
I will say, though, that if you like the Bertie Wooster books of P.G.Woodhouse, you'll probably like "Springtime for Henry" a lot more than I did.
Benn Levy wrote it, and Nicholas Martin directed it.