68. THE FATAL WEAKNESS
|Ina Claire on the cover of the original Playbill for THE FATAL WEAKNESS.|
|From left: Patricia Kilgarriff, Kristin Griffith. Photo: Richard Termine.|
THE FATAL WEAKNESS belongs to that stretch of Kelly’s career when he moved from satirical comedy to problem plays lightened by a mildly comic tone. The mother-daughter conflict over marital obligations lights the spark that leads the dramatist into the exploration of attitudes toward marriage and divorce that constitutes the play’s thematic spine. Ollie’s belief that married couples should remain together through thick and thin is contrasted with Penny’s theory that marriage is essentially a temporary arrangement that should dissolve when it wears out its welcome. Kelly manages, however, to create a situation that allows Ollie to reverse her attitude when she realizes that hers has become a loveless marriage, while, ironically, Penny, whose husband Vernon (Sean Patrick Hopkins) is so frustrated by her various notions about education, childrearing, and marriage that he’s ready to leave her, finds herself eating her own words. Listening in on all this, and occasionally offering comical observations, is the maid, Anna (Patricia Kilgarriff), given an Irish accent here to heighten her wryly knowing remarks.
|Kristen Griffith, Victoria Mack. Photo: Richard Termine.|
|Cliff Bemis, Victoria Mack. Photo: Richard Termine.|
No mention is made of what pays for all this in the Espinshade family, but, except for Penny’s predicament when the possibility of Vernon’s leaving her is raised, financial considerations are not significant in the lives of Paul and Ollie; on the other hand, one of the reasons Paul seems to be attracted to his medical mistress is that she grew up a poor orphan and overcame her deprived background to become a doctor.
The play’s main plot is mainly concerned with Ollie’s determined efforts, prompted by the friendly meddling of Mrs. Wentz, to follow Paul (via a third party female acquaintance who serves as a quasi-private eye) so as to certify that he is, indeed, having an affair. The subplot deals with Penny and Vernon’s troubles, and allows the playwright to introduce and satirize Penny’s advanced notions, including such proto fem-lib positions as her insistence that she needs somehow to “realize” herself (this is before people had to “find” themselves). The tone varies from light comedy to serious discussion; while the laughs in some sections, such as Act 1, come fairly frequently, long stretches go by before someone offers a risible riposte.
Actors are often cast in roles for which they are, technically, either too old or too young. Ina Claire was 53 when she played the 46-year-old Ollie, while the 52-year-old Paul was played by the 41-year-old Howard St. John (whose face you’ll recognize from many old films if you Google him). Ms. Griffith, whose slenderness and grace are suitably believable for Ollie, is, let us say, significantly older than Ms. Claire was when she essayed the part, and, while Mr. St. John was more than a decade younger than Paul, Mr. Bemis is at nearly a decade and a half older than the role. Ms. Griffith acquits herself well as Ollie, emulating the theatrical speaking style associated with such roles, and captures much of the character’s occasional silliness and her well-spoken intelligence when circumstances put her to the test. The somewhat portly Mr. Bemis is appropriately avuncular and down to earth, but not fully convincing as the jaunty lover in early middle age experiencing newfound love. Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Wentz nearly steals all her scenes as the stereotypically fast-talking, bonbon popping, wiseacre confidante, and Patricia Kilgarriff as the equally familiar comic maid makes the most of her several brief scenes. Victoria Mack is mostly one note as the annoying Penny, and Sean Patrick Hopkins adds few colors to his rather colorless role.
THE FATAL WEAKNESS, whose title refers to Ollie’s incurable sentimentalism, is in a longish three acts and five scenes, which last at least two and a half hours. Played in its entirety, it can’t avoid falling into longeurs, with scenes that, for all the smoothness of their dialogue, are overwritten. Mr. Kelly isn’t content to make his points but insists on doing so to where garrulousness sets in, such as when Paul’s lying about his vacation goes on endlessly, or when he delivers a tall tale about how he supposedly hurt his ankle on the golf course. We know he’s a fibber, so there’s no need to gild the lying.
The current trend for 90-minute, intermissionless plays makes the leisurely talkativeness, and general lack of action, of plays like THE FATAL WEAKNESS seem even more egregious, although director Jesse Marchese generally does a fine job of keeping the dialogue hopping at a nice clip. George Kelly directed his own production, and the script is filled with his original stage directions, which are extremely detailed and give the reader a full picture of the proceedings. One way you can tell Mr. Marchese didn’t follow these notes slavishly is the lack of smoking (apart from a cigar Paul lights in Act 3), directions for which are scattered throughout the script, down to the disposal of “match stems” and the stubbing out of cigarettes. Much as I hate smoking myself, this apparent concession to the actors’ preferences or audience discomfort does deprive the production of a definite period touch. Watching a 1946 drawing room comedy without actors smoking cigarettes (including those in holders) is like seeing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in color. It’s not a fatal weakness, but there’s something definitely off.