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A CurtainUp Review
The House of Mirth

By Gerchick, Ruth

The play, House of Mirth, adapted by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch from Whartonís celebrated 1905 novel, revolves around fashionable New York City society at the turn of the century and the hypocrisy of its pretensions. Then wealth and social position conferred respectability on rogues who amassed fortunes in devious ways. In this play, as in most of her writings, Wharton casts a sardonic eye on how scions of this rigid society conformed or were destroyed.

At the turn of the century, women like the beautiful Lily Bart , brought up to be drawing-room ornaments, were especially endangered. Lilyís small income could never buy the satins and white kid gloves she needed to compete in high society. And finding a suitable husband was an unending nightmare. In her own words, she was poor and horribly expensive. She had no calling other than her beauty and family name, which attracted suitors, but they were often somebody elseís husbands. The decent enough man she loves, canít afford heróheís also trying to keep up with Vanderbilt style and the millionaire who would shower her with diamonds is too glitzy for her circle-- just the kind of pickle that inspired most of Edith Whartonís incisive writing.

But what about the play itself? Program notes indicate that it was rushed to publication on the heels of Whartonís success with the novel of the same name, but that it was a flop everywhere except Detroit where it first tried out in 1906. So you might wonder, as I did, why the Mint Theater was willing to give it house room.That the play is hopelessly dated is an an understatement. Scenes shift from the country estate of the August Trenor, one of Lilyís backers and exploiters to the Wellington Bryís New York mansion to a yacht anchored in Monte Carlo to a millinerís shop, but nothing really changes in this laconic production.

Itís a tribute to several members of the cast that the play comes to life at all. Lisa M. Bostnar lifts Lily Bart from pure melodrama by her highly empathetic performance, and Gus Kaikkonen wrings a spark of life from the part of Lawrence Seldon, the conflicted suitor who did seems to know the difference between love and power. Donald Warfield does his best to re-create the nouveau-riche Simon Rosedale, but the superficiality of the play compared with the novel defeats the purpose.

House of Mirth in its present incarnation is unfortunately more tell than show.


.Editor's Note: I had a much happier experience with the play a few summer's ago when it was produced at Wharton's former summer home in Lenox which is now home of Shakespeare & Company. Perhaps sitting in Mrs. Wharton's former parlor, sipping tea and nibbling cookies at intermission puts one more in the mood to tread old paths. At any rate, the experience prompted me to re-read the novel and it held up very well and whether you see the Mint production or not, I highly recommend it as a first-time and second-time-around "good read" There are several editions available but the one with a foreword by novelist Anita Brookner is a very fine reprint and reasonably priced.

The listing of this book at Amazon.com provides some very insightful comments on the novel so check it out. The House of Mirth reprint edition with introduction by Anita Brookner.


THE HOUSE OF MIRTH
By Edith Wharton
With Bruce Barney, Lisa Bostnar, Jennifer Chudy, Mike Hodge, G.R. Johnson, Gus Kaikkonen, Sundy Leigh Leake, Janice Muller, Michael Stebbins, Larry Swansen, Claudia Traub, Kathleen Turco-Lyon, Donald Warfield
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Set Design by Vickie R. Davis
Lighting Design by Mark T. Simpson
Costume Design by John Kristiansen
Sound: Peter Griggs
Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street
5/26/98- 6/14/98; Reviewed by Ruth Gerchick Reviewed


© Elyse Sommer, May 1998

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