Ways of the Heart at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Patrick McManus

Patrick McManus was superb in Family Affair and even better in Ways and Means

Some folks saw all four of the Noël Coward shows at the Shaw Festival in a single day.  We spread Tonight at 8:30 out over two and half months, which gave us time to think (and blog) about what we’d seen. Now we’re done, having caught Ways of the Heart in the Courthouse Theater last Sunday evening.  These three one-acts may not be the best of the series, but they’re still indispensable.

But first, a protest against what we had to go through just to get into Canada in the first place. We left Rochester in plenty of time to reach Niagara-on-the-Lake by 6:00 or so and have dinner at the Epicurean before the 8:00 p.m. show. But cars were lined up at the Lewiston/Queenston border crossing for two miles, and we had to sit in line for the better part of two hours (our time with the customs inspector took all of 30 seconds). And what about the environment?  Our car’s computer said that we wasted nearly a gallon of gas idling in line; the SUVs all around us must have burned even more. We got to our show, without dinner, with only minutes to spare.

We saw recently that the Canadian government gave the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival several million dollars to promote tourism. Don’t they realize that nothing discourages spontaneous visits to Ontario more than the tedious, unpredictable delays at the border? Why didn’t they put a little extra “tourism” money into adding more booths at the border crossing and hiring more inspectors? We bet tourism would pick up by 100 percent if the province of Ontario could advertise that there’d never be more than a five minute wait at the border.

Back to the show: Ways of the Heart is at the Courthouse Theatre, where there’s a radically different dynamic between actors and audience. When you’re witnessing painful marital scenes like those in The Astonished Heart (the first and longest of the three plays in this show) from a vantage point eight feet away from the actors, you feel like a voyeur.

The Astonished Heart is one of two plays in Tonight at 8:30 that gives an embryo-to-grave sketch of an illicit romance. The first, in the Shaw Festival show titled Brief Encounters, was Still Life (see this post), in which an affair starts innocently; the lovers attract the audience’s sympathy because of their fundamental decency.

Claire Jullien

Claire Jullien

The lovers in The Astonished Heart are of a different sort. Here the affair starts when a jaded woman on the prowl, Leonora Vail (Claire Jullien), deliberately sets out to seduce an old school friend’s husband. Her target, Chris Faber (David Jansen), is a tightly wound, self-satisfied psychiatrist who turns out to be spectacularly ill-equipped for a relationship that he can’t control.  (Still Life involves an affair with a doctor, too.)  There’s no tenderness in their love affair, nor do we have much sympathy for the injured wife, Barbara (Laurie Paton), who faces the collapse of her marriage with almost pathological coolness.

Laurie Paton

We especially loved Laurie Paton as Lavinia Featherways in Family Affair

After intermission comes Family Affair, an intensely entertaining, offbeat satire of the way people behave when they’re not really sorry someone has died. The ten members of the Featherways family stand around their drawing room in extravagantly gothic mourning clothes (the play is set in the mid-1800s; the scene lacks only a raven) doing their best to mourn the passing of their father, whose Victorian portrait hangs over the mantle.

Michael Ball

We hope the Shaw Festival has bigger roles for Michael Ball in 2010

But they can keep up their long faces only so long.  One after the other, the Featherways admit to themselves and to each other that the old man was a dissolute skinflint and that his death came as a relief. Patrick McManus and Laurie Paton are in rare form as Jasper and Lavinia Featherways, but Michael Ball (still our favorite Shaw Festival actor) steals the show as Burrows, the Featherways’ decrepit, conveniently deaf butler.

David Jansen

David Jansen

The final play, Ways and Means, was, we must say, the weakest of the ten one-act plays we saw, even though its setting and plot are straight out of P. G. Wodehouse. The main problem, we thought, is that David Jansen plays what is supposed to be a comic role with the same sour, joyless affect that he used in The Astonished Heart earlier in the show. It’s also the way he’s currently playing the alcoholic James Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten (see our review) and the way he played the shattered Horace Gibbens last year in The Little Foxes (see our review).  One approach doesn’t fit all.

Ways and Means takes place in a guest bedroom at the French Riviera estate of Olive Lloyd-Ransome (Lisa Codrington), where socialites Toby and Stella Cartwright (Jansen and Claire Jullien again) have overstayed their welcome. The Cartwrights live by their charm and wits, but now they’re broke; they’ve lost what little money they had at the casino and at the bridge table and don’t even have enough to leave town.

They brainstorm for ways to raise money: Have Stella’s maid hock a necklace?  Corral someone who owes them money? Borrow from their hostess? A solution comes in the middle of the night when an ex-valet-turned-burglar, Stevens (Patrick McManus again), invades their bedroom.

At our performance, the opening scenes between Stella and Toby got no audience reaction.  Was this due, we wondered, to 75- year-old material that no longer packs any comic punches?  Unemployed social parasites like the Cartwrights were natural objects of ridicule in the twenties and thirties (Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones are the classic examples), but they’re not a familiar species anymore. At one point Stella says to Toby, “It seems a pity that you can’t turn your devastating wit to a more commercial advantage — you should write a gossip column.”  Toby responds, “I haven’t got a title.”  This must have been a surefire laugh line in 1935 when destitute dukes and duchesses wrote gossip columns for the London papers. But nobody laughed last Sunday evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But even more of a problem than dated material, we thought, was David Jansen’s inability to deliver comic lines with comic effect. Moments after Patrick McManus came on stage as the burglar Stevens, the play came to life and our audience suddenly realized that Ways and Means was a comedy, not a drama. Did Coward’s play abruptly change its mood with Stevens’s entrance (to some extent it did, we think, though we hesitate to suggest that Coward wrote anything with a flaw), or did McManus bring comic skills that Jansen lacks? We would have liked to have seen Blair Williams, a talented comic actor who was director of this show, playing Jansen’s roles.

August 18, 2009: We see that the New York Times has noticed that the Shaw is doing  Tonight at 8:30 (see this post), although the writer mostly talks about the history of these one-act plays and doesn’t say much about these performances.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

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