Sunday, August 2, 2020

258. IN PRAISE OF LOVE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Rex Harrison, Julie Harris.
IN PRAISE OF LOVE [Comedy-Drama/British/Death/Illness/Family/Literature/Marriage] A: Terence Rattigan; D: Fred Coe; S/L: Jo Mielziner; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; P: Arthur Cantor; T: Morosco Theatre; 12/10/74-5/31/75 (199)

Julie Harris, Peter Burnell.
An old-fashioned tearjerker in the “well-made” mold that sent several critics to their hankies. In Praise of Love was basically “a salute to that key organ of the British ethos, the stiff upper lip,” commented John Simon. A vehicle for stars Rex Harrison and Julie Harris, it may have been based on Harrison’s own experience with his late wife Kay Kendall, who was ill with leukemia but was not told by her husband that she was going to die from it.

Sebastian Cruttwell (Harrison), an acid-tongued Marxist book critic, has been married for 28 years to Lydia (Harris), an Estonian refugee and Nazi victim. Sebastian, out of touch with his deep-lying love for her, learns that Lydia is dying of a rare disease and strives to keep the news from her ears. She, however, aware of the seriousness of her condition, resolves not to let him know of it. The situation ultimately brings the pair more closely together than they’ve ever been.

Martin Gabel, Julie Harris, Rex Harrison.
The drama also introduces their TV-writer son, Joey (Peter Burnell), with whom Sebastian continually disagrees on political and other topics, and a successful novelist friend, Mark Walters (Martin Gabel). Sebastian, himself a failed novelist, is jealous of Mark’s success at writing sexy books.

This was the first play in a decade by Sir Terence Rattigan, one of England’s most solidly established old-guard playwrights. It met with mixed reviews, but enjoyed a relatively decent run because of the popularity of its accomplished stars. John Beaufort and Martin Gottfried thought it “touching,” and John Simon said it was “very good indeed” of its kind, but harsher opinions prevailed. Clive Barnes criticized it for being sentimental, predictable, implausible, and slick. Howard Kissell noted Rattigan’s failure to differentiate the tone of each character’s dialogue, and pointed to how Rattigan had cheaply manipulated the audience’s emotions by a speech recounting the heroine’s experiences with the Nazis. T.E. Kalem called this “a soap bubble of a play,” while Douglas Watt thought it a work of “artifice.”

Some quarreled with Harris’s Estonian accent, but most concurred with Gottfried: “Julie Harris, looking exquisite, survives her character’s demands for two acts of nobility without becoming an annoying martyr. . . . Harris creates an individual as well as a palpable and believable relationship with Harrison.” The latter received the best notices, being described by Jack Kroll as “a rare master, the Olivier of light comedy. . . . His lubricious squint, his wrinkled face, like the map of a rake’s progress, his seemingly spontaneous, chirping arabesques of speech are parts of an acting arsenal as sophisticated as anybody’s in the English language.”