Tuesday, May 18, 2021

564. THE WAY OF THE WORLD. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

John Woodvine.

THE WAY OF THE WORLD [Dramatic Revival] A: William Congreve; D: David William; S: Karen Mills; L: Howard Eldridge; CH: Geraldine Stephenson; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music i/a/w Brooklyn College in the Actors Company Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 2/13/74-2/24/74 (5)

This quintessential example of Restoration comedy, one of the wittiest, if most complexly plotted, of the genre, was produced during a four-play repertory season offered by England’s Acting Company at BAM. Several actors who would go on to fine careers were involved, with an especially brilliant future in store for Ian McKellen. Interestingly, this being a repertory company where the star of one production could be cast in a throwaway role in another, McKellen's character here was Lady Wishfort's footman.

David Williams’s production moved the time frame up to turn-of-the-century England. He staged it as it were a Wildean, rather than Congrevian, comedy. Edwardian manners replaced Restoration ones, cutaways and top hats took over from breeches and waistcoats, and telephone book stood in for a function once served by a messenger. Other anachronisms included a gramophone, a chauffeur, cigarettes, and even a few contemporary references. Some critics carped that these changes were gratuitous.

Overall, it was played broadly, often bordering on farce, which pleased some critics who thought it great fun, if sometimes over the top. Mel Gussow blamed the excesses on the actors, and Douglas Watt on the director, but both leaned toward forgiveness. Not so Edith Oliver, who found much of the dialogue inaudible and was vexed by the production’s “hokum.” “What Congreve would have made of it I cannot imagine. . . . All in all, a depressing evening.”

Oliver did admire several performances, among them Robin Ellis’s Fainall, Edward Petherbridge’s Mirrabel, and Caroline Blakiston’s Millamant, and John Woodvine's Sir Wilful Witwoud. John Simon was less enthralled, disliking the acting, direction, and design.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: We Bombed in New Haven