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The Fatal Weakness

I always thought weddings were sad. Especially when you know the way the majority of them are going to turn . . . I wonder sometimes why people bother.— Anna

But there's always been something so terribly touching to me about two people standing up before all the world and promising to be faithful to each other while ever they live.— Mrs. Espenshade, whose incurable romanticism about weddings as the harbingers of lasting happiness is the her "fatal weakness" and obviously not shared by her maid.
The Fatal Weakness
Kristin Griffith and Cynthia Darlow (Photo: Richard Termine)
George Kelly (1887 - 1974) has been relegated to that rarely opened storage bin of neglected plays that theatrical archeologists like the Mint Theater's artistic director Jonathan Bank feel deserve another look. Contrary to the remark I overheard in the elevator taking me to the Mint's latest rescue mission — "So this is Grace Kelly's uncle?!" — Kelly is hardly just a footnote in the movie star-cum-princess's biography.

He was once one of Broadway's leading practitioners of well-made plays. His first hit, The Torchbearers (1922) and The Showoff (1924) were lauded as brilliant comedies. His darker domestic drama, Craig's Wife (1925), winning him a Pulitzer and it's title character becoming a metaphor for obsessive pride in an impeccably furnished and maintained home.

The Fatal Weakness turned out to be Kelly's swan song but not one that restored his diminished reputation. It won raves for its star, Ina Claire, but failed to achieve a place in the canon of enduring, continuously revived plays.

While its pivotal character, Mrs. Espenshade, suffers from the "fatal weakness" of an over-romantic belief in a wedding as a guarantee of marital devotion, there's nothing weak about the Mint's mission. Rather than cherry picking from the top of a playwright's oeuvre, they fearlessly dive to the bottom. And though they always cast their productions with outstanding actors, there's none of Broadway's emphasis on star casting.

In George Kelly's case, this is the second season in a row for the Mint to pull a play written when his muse was said to have left him. Philip Goes Forth had all the hallmarks of Kelly's ability to create characters with emotional depth whose dilemmas nevertheless have comic potential. But, despite being staged with this company's usual commitment to an authentically staged, well acted production, it wasn't quite the triumph of some of their many other restorations. The same is true of the currently running The Fatal Weakness.

This drawing room comedy would be more aptly labeled with the pormanteau coinage, dramedy. It explores the various attitudes towards marriage as a faithful until death do us part proposition in a changing post World War II America.

While there have been countless plays about marital infidelity, Kelly here cleverly, if with a few too many contrivances, count-counterpoints the situation of Ollie Espenshade and her daughter Penny Hassett — the older woman overly romantic and self-deluded about a dead marriage, the very modern-minded younger one willing to abandon her marriage for a more self-actualized life style.

Typical of Broadway's golden era, everyone involved in the mother and daughter's marital contretemps gets their say: Much on scene is Mrs. Espenshade's less romantic minded best friend, a bored divorcee with nothing better to do than to take pleasure in helping her friend to confront the truth about her marriage. There's also an interview with Penny's conventional husband who's fed up with her modern ideas, and who happens to have all the facts about the woman who may one of these days replace Mrs. Espenshade as his mother-in-law. Of course, there's also Mrs. E's duplicitous husband and the maid who brings her own practical wit and wisdom to the relationship question.

If Mr. Kelly, who also directed most of his plays, were around to see the Mint's production of The Fatal Weakness, he would be delighted with this cast. All are excellent and experienced thespians but not big box office names. Though Ina Clare was a case of star casting in 1947, Kelly in his heyday chose his actors with less interest in their being box office draws than their ability to read his lines just as they went from his imagination to the script.

Kristin Griffith may seem to be a bit too glamorous for the no longer desired wife, but the fact that her husband's new love is described as "a rather plain little woman" deepens the poignancy of her situation. So, while her looking lovely works, what is rather odd is her speaking more like a British society matron than an Amerian woman. No such problem for Cynthia Darlow who comes close to stealing the show as Ollie's busybody friend Mrs. Wentz.

Director Jesse Marchese has all six actors deliver the nuances of Kelly's characters. The elegantly furnished sitting room with its mirrored walls designed by Vicki R. Davis on which a lace curtain rises puts us smack into a time of spacious elegance kept neat and orderly by uniformed live-in maids. Andrea Varga's costumes and Jane's sound scape complete the Mint's usual aura of authenticity.

Admirable as all this authenticity is, Marchese's production, like Jerry Ruiz's for Philip Goes Forth, is a bit too zealously true to the script''s three acts and two intermissions. Granted that the Mint's regular fan base has endorsed their generally reverential presentations, this one does occasionally stretch the audience's tolerance for the structural methods commonly employed long ago. Thus, The Fatal Weakness's long on exposition first act that establishes who's who and what's likely to happen that was once de rigueur for a Kelly play, now comes off as rather too flat, artificial and talky.

Things sizzle more as the various plot threads unfold. To offset the excess of contrivances there are some wonderfully sly double entendre interchanges linking Mr. Espenshade's golf and romantic outings. Still, the pace remains overly leisurely and not all the lines intended to seed laughs take root.

To sum up, The Fatal Weakness is neither George Kelly's or the Mint's finest hour, but neither is it fatally flawed since it does fit this invaluable company's mission to reclaim even lesser known works.

And here's good news about the Mint (as well as a number of similarly worthy theatrical enterprises. In its effort to bring the Off-Broadway theater world's diverse offerings to a wider audience, public television station WNET/Channel 13. has been working on a new series called "Theater Close-Ups" to bring some Off-Broadway plays to audiences who missed them. The first "close-up" will give audiences a chance to see the Mint's terrific production of John Van Druten's London Wall on October 2nd at 9pm, and on subsequent Thursdays at 10pm. This isn't just a filmed version of one of last season's performances, but had some scenes shot without an audience to permit more filmic close-ups.

The Fatal Weakness by George Kelly
Directed by Jesse Marchese
Cast: Cliff Bemis (Mr. Paul Espenshade), Cynthia Darlow (Mrs. Mabel Wentz), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. Ollie Espenshade), Sean Patrick Hopkins (Vernon Hassett), Patricia Kilgarriff (Anna), Victoria Mack (Penny Hassett).
Scenic design: Vicki R. Davis
Costume design: Andrea Varga
Lighting design: Christian DeAngelis
Sound design: Jane Shaw
Properties: Joshua Yocom
Wigs: Gary Arave
Stage Manager: Rhonda Picou
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 2 intermissions
Mint Theater 311 West 43rd Street www.minttheater.org
From 8/19/14; opening 9/15/14 ; closing 10/26/14
Tuesday to Thursday 7pm, Friday & Saturday 8pm, Saturday & Sunday 2pm; Special Wednesday 2pm Matinees: 9/10 and 10/15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/12/press performance
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