Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival

Tennessee Williams

(May 11, 2011)  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on the short list of plays that we’ll happily see anytime, anywhere. Such glorious poetry — and what else is it but poetry, for who really talks like the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?  It’s magical how Tennessee Williams brought his characters alive by giving them lines no one would utter in ordinary speech and making them have conversations no ordinary people would have.  The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are as painfully real as can be.

In the Shaw Festival’s 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we saw in a mesmerizing preview performance last weekend, the poetry flows like honey from the lips of Moya O’Connell (a treat for the eyes as Maggie the Cat), Gray Powell (Brick), and Jim Mezon (Big Daddy).  Their characters could hardly be more vivid.

Anyone who has seen the bowdlerized movie version (Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor) will find this a much darker (and more explicit) show.  The long first act shows us only Brick and his sexually frustrated wife (the scenes of the play all take place in their bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi delta mansion house), but through Maggie’s chatter we meet the rest of the Pollitt family as well.  Maggie and Brick also introduce us to a major character who never appears in the play, Brick’s late friend Skipper, and to the play’s great mystery: what Brick and Skipper really felt for one another, why Skipper took his own life, and why Brick no longer has any interest in anything but drinking bourbon until he feels the “click”.

The play’s first act leaves us persuaded that there is nothing left between Maggie and Brick. But the second act teases us with the notion that there is still some palpable affection between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon).  (The mere appearance of Mezon, once again a superb stage presence, noticeably ratchets up the play’s energy level.)  Father and son find common ground with their mutual detestation of “mendacity,” but Big Daddy’s ego leaves him unable to penetrate Brick’s alcoholic retreat.

Again and again, love is offered and spurned.  Maggie adores and desires a husband who tells her that he can’t stand her.  Big Daddy loves a son who’s weary of listening to his father “gas” about himself.  We are shocked at Maggie’s abasement when Brick rejects her; even more appalling are the scenes of deliberate cruelty in which Big Daddy insults his “fat” wife (who loves him) and humiliates her in front of the family and friends gathered for his birthday party.

Brick, Big Daddy, and Big Mama

As Big Daddy’s feckless, foolish wife, Corrine Koslo manages, against strong odds, to to arouse our sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character.  As Brick, Gray Powell gives the best performance we’ve seen from him at the Shaw Festival; it must be a challenge to play a character whose range of emotional response is constrained by his chronically high alcohol level.  We particularly appreciated Patrick McManus in the difficult role of Brick’s older brother Gooper, scheming with his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay, also pitch-perfect) to get what he sees as justice from a father who has always preferred his younger brother.

We know we’re in danger of deep waters here, but we couldn’t help thinking how the playwright’s sexuality kept bursting forth at various points throughout the play — and we don’t mean simply the storyline about the attraction between Brick and Skipper.  Was Tennessee Williams repulsed by women’s bodies?  In the first act, Brick tells Maggie he is “disgusted” only seconds after she refers to her breasts and her figure.  Did the playwright feel threatened by sexually aggressive women?  Brick stubbornly resists Maggie’s sexual advances, and Big Daddy has stopped having sex with Big Mama (who likewise “disgusts” him).  And the playwright is clearly revolted by the sexual appetite and fecundity of Gooper’s wife Mae.

The Shaw Festival’s production might disappoint those who expect the lines to be rendered in the accents of the deep South.  But we probably wouldn’t understand a word if they did.  In this production, fortunately, the actors are all intelligible; they slip in and out of their accents just enough to remind us where the play is set.  And they nailed the main thing: the poetry.

Harvey the pooka at the Shaw Festival

(May 3, 2010) We’re so familiar with the classic film version of Harvey — we’ve owned copies in at least three different video formats — that it wasn’t easy at first to hear the familiar lines spoken last week in different ways by different actors on the Shaw Festival stage. But we got over it in short order. This one flies on its own merits.

Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz) makes friends with Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly)

Mary Chase’s Harvey is one of the great American plays. It won the Pulitzer and ran on Broadway for four years back in the 1940s, but we’d never before seen it on stage. This domestic comedy (with strong elements of fantasy and whimsy) is the story of Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz), an amiable middle-aged man of no occupation who has failed to live up to his youthful promise after inheriting family money.  Elwood spends most of his days drinking in bars with his “friend” Harvey.

Unfortunately for Elwood’s long-suffering sister Veta (Mary Haney) and niece Myrtle Mae (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), Harvey is a pooka, a six-and-a-half-foot invisible rabbit. Veta cannot introduce Myrtle Mae into society, where she might meet eligible young men, because Elwood has an unsettling habit of introducing his invisible friend to people he meets.

Norman Browning

When Elwood appears unexpectedly at a ladies’ club concert in their home, guests scatter in alarm as Elwood introduces them to his invisible companion. That’s the last straw for Veta, who decides to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest (Dr. Chumley is played by the hilarious and inimitable Norman Browning), a sanitarium run mainly by his uptight assistant and fellow psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson (Gray Powell).

Elwood's sister Veta (Mary Haney), visited by Dr. Chumley (Norman Browning), is unpleasantly surprised to find that Elwood's portrait of Harvey is up in place of the portrait of her mother.

Can magical creatures like pookas be real?  Can one man’s reality be different from another’s?  Is escapism underrated?  Harvey raises and answers metaphysical questions — but this production, directed by Joe Ziegler, downplays the thought-provoking elements of Harvey and goes for comedy. And although there’s a good deal of the supernatural in the play, Ziegler plays it for laughs as well.  The scene where Dr. Chumley’s orderly, Mr. Wilson (Tim Ziegler) looks up the word “pooka” and finds the dictionary talking back to him, for example, might well be a “thrill-and-chill” moment, but the Zieglers (both director and actor) make it a light moment.

Nurse Kelly and Dr. Lyman Sanderson talk to Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) in the 1950 movie version of Harvey

So how is this play different from the movie? For one thing, it’s more risque (although by contemporary standards that’s not saying much). In one scene, the tightly wound Dr. Sanderson tells Elwood that he and Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly) had made a “mistake” together earlier in the day; Elwood interprets this, in his diplomatic way, as a confession that the doctor and nurse had succumbed to sexual passion for one another. The movie version of Harvey contained no such suggestion — indeed, no suggestion that Elwood knew anything about carnality at all.

We heard some lines, especially early in the play, that we don’t remember hearing in the movie, and we missed some fine scenes that were evidently written just for the movie, especially a bar scene in which Elwood and Harvey order drinks from a bartender and talk to a down-and-out alcoholic friend who’s just gotten out of prison. The most striking difference between play and movie, however, is that the last scenes in the movie raise the possibility that the pooka might transfer his patronage from Elwood (who enjoys Harvey’s company for its own sake) to Dr. Chumley (who simply wants to take advantage of the pooka’s magical powers).  And unlike the play, the movie ends with a bit of match-making. The movie director evidently thought that more “resolution” and less ambiguity was needed in a feature film.

Mary Haney

This show won’t make us forget James Stewart and Josephine Hull (Elwood’s sister Veta in the movie), but it’s full of wonderful moments and has some marvelous acting, especially from Mary Haney, who is a much more clear-eyed and self-controlled Veta (and thus arguably a more effective foil to her brother Elwood) than Josephine Hull’s flustered character. We enjoyed Diana Donnelly as the sexually frustrated Nurse Kelly; Ms. Donnelly is well matched with Gray Powell as Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the oblivious, professionally-absorbed object of her infatuation.

And speaking of sex, Mary Chase uses the sexually repressed Dr. Sanderson to make fun of Freudian psychiatry, which was very much in vogue back in the 1940s.  The ease with which Dr. Sanderson diagnosed the perfectly sane Veta as a mental case reminded us of one of P. G. Wodehouse’s great minor characters, Sir Roderick Glossop, also a psychiatrist, who found everyone he met a candidate for the looney bin.

Less satisfying were the less experienced actors in the cast. Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae Simmons was played by Zarrin Darnell-Martin, whose acting seemed to us markedly short of professional standards. Jim Ziegler, as Dr. Chumley’s muscle-man Duane Wilson, seemed merely to have copied the mannerisms of the actor who played the part in the 1950 movie.

Elwood P. Down (Peter Krantz) enchants Dr. Chumley's wife Betty (Donna Belleville)

That brings us to Shaw Festival veteran Peter Krantz, who plays Elwood P. Dowd. It must not be easy to play a character who never becomes angry or excited and who, no matter how others treat him, remains smiling, courteous, pleasant, and oblivious — in other words, a character whose manner hardly changes throughout the play. (The only thing close to an emotion that Elwood is permitted is a hint of eagerness whenever he thinks someone is offering him a drink.) About Mr. Krantz’s generally capable performance we have mixed feelings.

Mr. Krantz is not our favorite Shaw Festival actor to begin with, a prejudice that dates from his role as a sexual deviant in a 2003 Shaw Festival show we did not enjoy, The Coronation Voyage, and as the lead actor in what was unquestionably the worst Shaw Festival show we’ve ever seen, 2005’s The Invisible Man.  To us Mr. Krantz never seems quite wholly at ease; he has a certain watchful wariness about him that keeps us from being entirely comfortable when he’s on stage.  To our minds, therefore, his is not a stage presence well-suited to play a character whose principal characteristics are utter affability and freedom from guile.

But if not Mr. Krantz, then who? The program includes a list of the 2010 Shaw Festival ensemble, and we went through it to look for other candidates for the role of Elwood P. Dowd. Michael Ball or David Schurrman? Too long in the tooth. Patrick Galligan? Too urbane. Ben Carlson? Too edgy. Benedict Campbell could have pulled it off. Our pick would have been the versatile, age-appropriate Blair Williams, who unfortunately is not appearing at Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer.

We saw last year that Stephen Spielberg planned to start shooting a remake of Harvey in early 2010, with Robert Downey, Jr. or Brad Pitts rumored as candidates for the role of of Elwood Dowd. We were glad to see in the Shaw Festival’s program that this thoroughly unnecessary project has died a natural death.

Emsworth’s take on the Shaw Festival’s production of the Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus is at this post. And his thoughts on the Chekhov masterpiece The Cherry Orchard are at this post.

Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.

Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival (a review)

movie poster of Born YesterdayThe audiences at the Shaw Festival tend to be older, so we’re guessing that quite a few of the folks at the performance of Born Yesterday that we saw had, like us, seen the 1950 film version of the play, starring Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday (who won the Oscar for best actress), at one time or another.  We’d also guess that most of them (like us) missed the 1993 remake, starring John Goodman and Melanie Griffith, 1993 movie version Born Yesterdaywho was nominated for, but did not win, the 1993 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.

At any rate, the incidental music for the Shaw Festival’s production reminded us of Born Yesterday‘s history in the motion pictures; the curtain rose to a sweeping orchestral overture in the style of the vintage movies of the 1940s. And Deborah Hay’s performance as Billie Dawn surely owed a good deal to Judy Holliday, star of both the original stage play and the 1950 movie.

Nothing wrong with that, though; Born Yesterday is a thoroughly entertaining show, the best production of a classic American comedy at the Shaw Festival since You Can’t Take It With You ten years ago.  Deborah Hay is a scream in the lead role.

The play begins as self-made junk tycoon Harry Brock (Thom Marriott) is moving into a suite at a posh Washington, D.C. hotel. Harry is intent on cornering the market on all the scrap metal that’s littering Europe after the war (WWII), and his scheme, devised by his $100,000 per year personal lawyer Ed Devery (Patrick Galligan), depends on his owning part of the United States government as well.  Harry intends to bribe an influential senator (Lorne Kennedy) to get rid of laws that stand in his way.

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

But his first meeting with the senator and his wife shows Harry that his long-time mistress Billie Dawn (Deborah Hay), a former chorus girl from Brooklyn, needs some polishing up before she’s ready for Washington society. Harry hires a young bespectacled reporter, Paul Verrall (Gray Powell), to give his culturally deficient mistress a crash course in literature, the arts, and politics. To everyone’s surprise, she takes to Thomas Paine and Dickens right away, she likes the pictures at the National Gallery, and she turns out to have an instinctive feel for the dynamics of crooked business deals.  As this is a romantic comedy, she also falls for her tutor.

scene from Born Yesterday

Gray Powell as Paul Verrall, Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

The storyline of gussying up a girl from the streets reminded us, naturally, of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Like Henry Higgins in that play, Harry Brock fails to foresee the full fruits of a cultural education for Billie Dawn.  After spending time with Paul, Billie Dawn realizes that Harry is crude, brutish, and ignorant.  Her political education also helps her realize that Harry is a crook and that his plan to buy a United States senator is (gasp) un-American.  (Emsworth has some thoughts on the ideological overtones of Born Yesterday in this post.)

The humor in Born Yesterday is not sophisticated, but it goes down easy.  The entire cast is marvelous, down to the small supporting roles (we liked especially Beryl Bain as Helen, Billie Dawn’s maid and friend, and Donna Belleville as Senator Hedges’s wife), but the tone of the show depends on Deborah Hay, who plays the brassy Billie Dawn to perfection.  Her repartee with Thom Marriott (as Harry Brock) is precious, and their hilarious ten-minute, mostly wordless game of gin rummy is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And of course it’s tremendously satisfying to see Harry get what’s coming to him. Harry Brock, a bully who knocks Billie Dawn around when she crosses him, may be the least attractive character you’ll ever see in a stage comedy. No lovable swindler he (like Max Bialystock in The Producers); meanness is his primary personal quality.

Vermeer -- Girl with a Red Hat

Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat

For the second time at the Shaw Festival this year (see this post), we were delighted to see reproductions of some of our favorite art on stage; Billie Dawn brought home some color prints of pictures by Vermeer, Cezanne, and Gauguin from her excursions with Paul to the National Gallery.

The show we saw had some unintended drama. Outside the theater, the weather in Niagara-on-the-Lake was stormy, and throughout the play rolls of thunder were frequently heard (during scenes in which the skies of Washington, D.C., which were part of the scenery, were blue and cloudless!). In the final moments of the play, the power went off and the theater went dark for about ten seconds just as Patrick Galligan (playing the lawyer Ed Devery, and pitch-perfect as usual) was reaching the climax of his “justice and the American way” speech. Galligan was still holding his pose (to the applause of the audience) when the lights came on again.

We also appreciated the local connection: playwright Garson Kanin, who wrote Born Yesterday, was born in Rochester! Near as we can tell, he didn’t live here long enough for our town to make much of an impression on him, but we’ll take credit for him anyway. Aside from Rochester’s being the home of one of the finest actors of our time (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we don’t have many other show business types to brag about.

More thoughts about Born Yesterday — and Emsworth’s reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

Left-wing ideology in Born Yesterday (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (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)