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A CurtainUp Review

Wharton One Acts: The Pretext and The Verdict

There are some at Shakespeare & Co. who think of Edith Wharton as a friendly ghost smiling on the bustling theatrical enterprise they've created in her former estate. No doubt she'd be happy with some of the fine adaptations of her work that the company has mounted. Production of her novels have included The House of Mirth, Custom of the Country and earlier this season Ethan Frome. The popularity of these ambitious plays has been by the annual adaptations of two Wharton stories paired for the popular afternoon One Acts that run throughout July and August in the Wharton Theater.

It's a relaxing break in Berkshire vacationers' almost frenetic rush from one cultural event to another. Combine this with the tea-lemonade-cookie intermission to give the sense of actually visiting the celebrated writer, and it's small wonder the One-Acts are sell-outs even when the plays are not up to Shakespeare & Co's usual standards of excellence. If an actor flubs a line, or if the plays fail to live up to the potential of the source, the audience tends to be more amused than annoyed. That brings us to this season's set of playlets both of which are running full steam on an enormous amount of audience good will and vacation spirit.

While The Pretext and, even more, so The Verdict, do display glimpses of Mrs. Wharton's astute and often ahead-of-her-time social insight, both seem to be victims of the Shakespeare & Company members incredibly busy workloads and are not on a par with the more ambitious and more carefully worked through and rehearsed plays that better represent the company's standards of excellence. Compared to the polished direction and performances in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, (see our review), performed evenings in the same theater (with the same bare-bones kind of set) these stories can only be described as very rough diamonds indeed.

The Pretext, adapted by Allison Ragland, is one of Wharton's variations on a familiar theme--the frustrations of a modern and adventurous spirit within the framework of a very traditional, unromantic marital relationship. To be specific, an older American woman (Diane Prusha) and a young English houseguest (John Beale) are romantically drawn to each other. When he breaks off his engagement to a titled English girl (Karen Torbjornsen) an explosive confrontation between the American and English woman follows. Standing in for the audience is Mrs. Sperry (Robin Hynek) the American woman's friend and confidante. The flash of understanding that crosses her face at the end is the dramatic highpoint of this otherwise slight tale.

The Verdict, adapted by Jim Nutter, uses the same cast to tell the story of an American travel writer (John Beale) who goes to France in search of the reason why a famous artist (Robert Lohbauer), has stopped painting unusually early in his career. The emphasis is on sly humor works more successfully here than in The Pretext shtik (the waiter in The Betrayal apparently often oversteps the boundaries of his small part).

To get the most from this current One Act offering, here's my recommendation: Park your critic's hat at the door of the cheerful 94-seat theater space, enjoy its magnificent view of the Berkshire hills and your tea-and-cookies intermission in Mrs. Wharton dining room. Consider buying a copy of Wharton's collected stories (the gift shop has a wealth of books by and about her and her contemporaries.

From two short stories by Edith Wharton
The Pretext adapted by Allison Ragland
The Verdict adapted by Jim Nutter
Both directed by Jonathan Epstein and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie
Featuring members of Shakespeare & Co.
Wharton Theatre at The Mount (Wharton's former estate)
Plunkett Street
Lenox MA, (413) 637-3353

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