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|A CurtainUp Review
The Wharton One-Acts
The Dilletante and The Mistress
Since making its home at Edith Wharton's former Lenox estate, Shakespeare & Company has put on many adaptations of her novels including The House of Mirth, Custom of the Country and Ethan Frome. These fine productions seemed an apt tribute to the author's friendly ghost thought by many to be smiling on the bustling theatrical enterprise created in the home she loved. Besides these ambitious projects, the company has also created an annual double bill of adaptations of stories, usually but not exclusively by Wharton. Playing in the afternoon with an intermission with refreshments in the Wharton parlor, these pieces derive much of their charm from the setting, and the scheduling which makes you feel as if you'd been invited to "take tea" at the mansion.
Small wonder these paired plays are sell-outs even when they're not always quite on a par with Shakespeare & Company's usual standards of excellence. As I said in my review of the '97 One Acts, if an actor flubs a line, or if the plays fail to live up to their inspirational source, the audience tends to be more amused than critical. This year's playlets once again run on the energy gained from this excess of good will and vacation spirit. As usual there is a thematic link between the plays which this year combine Mrs. Wharton's The Dilettante with a short story by Guy de Maupassant, The Mistress. The thread that binds is a major Wharton preoccupation, "the relations between the sexes."
In "The Dilettante"> the characters, hobbled by the circumspect society they live in, have great difficulty speaking freely and openly to each other. Margaret Vervain (Diane Prusha), who is able to find a small measure of release for her feelings in art is obviously the author's stand-in. Thursdale Pemberton (John Rahal Sarrouf), the man for whom she has stronger feelings than he realizes, (or she admits to) appears to be the title character. By the time we've visited with Mrs. Vervain, Pemberton and his fiancee (Marybeth Bentwood), however, we are left wondering if the title might not apply to any of the three trapped in this world of proper decorum.
Unfortunately, Diane Prusha does not bring the emotional intensity needed to capture Mrs. Vervain's intense feelings of lost chances and regrets. She more or less reprises the expressions and gestures of her role as an older American woman in last year's half of the double bill, The Pretext. Marybeth Bentwood is somewhat more emotionally engaging as Thursdale's fiancee who is troubled less by what lies beneath the apparently platonic relationship between her fiance and Mrs. Vervain, but whether his restraint with that lady is likely to carry over into their marriage.
John Rahal Sarrouf, is not totally convincing as the charismatic sun towards which both women in The Dilettante are drawn. Happily, he emerges as an enormously funny Antoine de Castellare in The Mistress which is also the more successful of the two plays. Sarrouf and his co-star, Antonia Freeland make the most of the farcical humor of Richard Burdick's free adaptation of Maupassant's story which moves the afternoon's mood from cold and measured to hot and hilarious. Instead of people whose passions are so hidden that one wonders if they're capable of being aroused, we have a couple whose initial passion for one another is never in doubt. Their problem is that the cooling fire of their passion has led to estrangement. But the memory of what was is strong enough to prompt each to devise a plan to rekindle the embers. In carrying out their schemes, the actors camp it up unabashedly and generally bring it off. Since de Maupassant was known for his surprise endings I'll leave it to you to find out where Hermione or Antoine's scheme wins the day and at what price.
As is usual in this living room venue, the costumes and props provide just enough of a stimulant for the audience to fill in more detail with their own imaginations. "The Dilettante," has only a single prop, an easel covered by a shawl. which comes across as rather shabby because it's so overused by director Cecil MacKinnon. The second play looks almost cluttered with props by comparison (but isn't).
Never an easy stage for entrances and exits, the plays' movement is hampered by the unavailability of the terrace (due to the restoration of the mansion) so that the actors are forced to noisily stomp up and down the hallway outside the playing area. Here's hoping that not only the terrace will be operational again next season, but that Shakespeare & Company will be able to go back to presenting a more substantive by-or-about Wharton work along with these fun but minor efforts. In the meantime, while not by Wharton, there are several excellent full-length plays in the '98 repertory, including Private Eyes (also in the Wharton Theater, for the entire season).
Do the flaws pointed out mean you should pass up this "high tea" theater experience for the more full-bodied works?. I'll repeat my recommendation from last year for getting the most out of the Wharton One-Acts: Park your critic's hat at the door of the cheerful 94-seat theater, enjoy its magnificent view of the Berkshire hills and savor it as a respite and from your busy Berkshire day and a chance to step back into another world.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED:
'97 One Acts