Thursday, September 18, 2014

68. Review of THE FATAL WEAKNESS (September 17, 2014)


With George Kelly’s drawing room comedy of manners, THE FATAL WEAKNESS, the Mint Theatre continues in its distinguished tradition of producing worthy but long forgotten and infrequently revived plays by significant playwrights of the past. By the time its original production opened at Broadway’s Royale Theatre (now the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) on November 19, 1946, a year after World War II ended, Kelly (uncle of actress Grace Kelly) had enjoyed an estimable career, including still well-known hits like CRAIG’S WIFE, THE SHOW-OFF, and THE TORCH-BEARERS. This play, however, his tenth (and last) on the Great White Way, was only mildly successful, running 119 performances (not a terrible number back then), and deemed good enough to be selected by Burns Mantle as one of his ten best of the year, and for critic George Jean Nathan to call it the season’s “Best New Comedy.” As I wrote in my ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1940-1950, “It pleased a fair proportion of the reviewers, who generally thought it uneven but still a refreshingly unsentimental and incisively comic view of an incurably sentimental middle-aged woman.”

Ina Claire on the cover of the original Playbill for THE FATAL WEAKNESS.

The beloved Broadway light comedienne Ina Claire returned to the stage after a five-year retirement to play the leading role of Ollie Espinshade, a wealthy, incurably romantic woman of 46, played now by Kristen Griffith, who learns from her gossipy friend, Mrs. Mabel Wentz (Cynthia Darlow), that her dashing, if narcissistic, husband of 28 years, the 52-year-old Paul (Cliff Bemis), is having a fling with another woman, Dr. Claudia Hilton (unseen), an M.D. specializing in osteopathy. (The playwright has some fun with this branch of medicine, but he never explains what it is—a form of treatment requiring physical manipulation of the muscles and joint; from the tepid audience laughter, I wonder how commonly known its meaning is.) Ollie is such a romanticist that she even attends the weddings of people she doesn’t know, just so she can weep at them. Her daughter, Penny (Victoria Mack), professes a more cynical view of marriage.

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.

Patience is required to enjoy ‘The Fatal Weakness’
Kristen Griffith, Victoria Mack. Photo: Richard Termine.
THE FATAL WEAKNESS is the kind of middlebrow entertainment that dominated midcentury Broadway stages, usually with a leading actress in the role of the elegant, fashionably dressed heroine, who spoke in a semi-British accent (such as you can hear daily by watching old B/W films on TCM). Matching her wardrobe would be a lavish home decorated with expensive drapery, furniture, lamps, and tchotchkes. For the 1946 production, Donald Oenslager created a sitting room on the second floor of an urban townhouse with two large archways and tall walls covered with floral wallpaper. In the Mint revival, performed under the limited conditions necessitated by their small Off-Broadway stage, designer Vicki R. Davis has successfully abandoned the chintz and archways in favor of a room with mirrored walls, the upstage section interestingly angled, suggesting a more contemporary yet still period-appropriate art deco ambience that offers a fresh and lively environment for the action. Christian DeAngelis’s lighting nicely helps establish the seasonal shifts, time of day, and atmosphere.

BWW Reviews:  THE FATAL WEAKNESS May Be Found In The Script
Cliff Bemis, Victoria Mack. Photo: Richard Termine.
Andrea Varga has given the actors suitably attractive mid-1940s costumes, with the slender Ms. Griffith looking chicly smart in her various ensembles. Act 3, scene 1, however, is supposedly set during a sweltering heat wave, yet, apart from Penny in her sleeveless, floral summer dress, the other characters’ seem unfazed by the heat and humidity. Ollie wears a jacket over her sheer white blouse, but eventually takes it off, while Paul comes home from vacation wearing a Hemingway-esque hunting jacket and hat. I realize that proper summertime attire in 1946 differed from what would be worn today, but does he really have to wrap himself in a smoking jacket after he’s doffed his other one?

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.