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The Uneasy Chair
By Elyse Sommer
When I last encountered Dana Ivey and Roger Rees, she was on The Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival's stage zestfully delivering solecisms by that intrepid abuser of the English language, Mrs. Malaprop. Mr. Rees was visible only through his innovative direction of the revival of The Rivals (see link).
In Evan Smith's brand-new and deliberately old-fashioned comedy, The Uneasy Chair, he is once again front and center while the direction is in the capable hands of Richard Cottrell. If you want to see a match made in theatrical heaven, be sure to catch him and Ms. Ivey stare and glare and squabble their way through the hellishly uneasy relationship of Miss Amelia Pickles and Captain Josiah Wickett that drives this play. The Ivey/Rees on stage rapport is as perfect as the Pickles/Wickett relationship is not.
Not that Miss Pickles and Captain Wickett couldn't be a late-blooming romantic twosome. After all they have much in common, including the fact that each must get by on the less than princely income of two hundred pounds a year. For Miss Pickles that means turning her home in a cul-de-sac abutting stylish Belgravia into a boarding house. The stiff-upper-lip-wax-mustachioed Captain recognizes the genteel comforts of that house as a just right and affordable retirement haven. Both are the very model of icy propriety. From the moment they take measure of each other and negotiate the slippery slope of living under one roof, it's clear that the landlord tenant relationship could deepen into hostility or the intimacy that has eluded both of them.
Young Mr. Smith's love affair with the drawing room sagas of Dickens, Wilde and Trollope, and their convoluted plots and repartee is equally self evident. Yet his play is a thoroughly modern take on the mannered comedies of his literary forbears. The dramatic complications and words are cleverly circa late nineteenth century, as are the self-explanatory asides to the audience. However, style and content are servants to Smith's clever conceit. That conceit is to peel the lid off the pettiness and self-protective barriers between men and women and to do so through the lens of Victorian manners and mores.
The result is a comedy which eventually veers from the path of the genres that inspired it. Its dénouement, which only a spoilsport would reveal, is likely to discombobulate and disappoint some people. Yet, the shift in mood and direction from the comical joustings set up during the first half of the play is what keeps The Uneasy Chair from becoming a long joke that's allowed to wear thin. While the switch from breezy clarinet to moody cello strikes a somewhat too discordant note, no matter. Mr. Smith is very much an original young playwright with a gift for language and a knack for letting you in on his literary foraging.
I think if Dickens could come back to see this play he'd appreciate Miss Pickles' kinship, comic as well as bittersweet, with Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. He'd also get a charge out of Mr. Smith's sly name games: Wickett and Pickles remind one of Pip's friends the Pockets. Wickett also brings to mind David Copperfield's true love, Agnes Wickfield -- and, even closer to the mark there's Pick(les)Wick(ett) as in The Pickwick Papers.
Besides the richly comic roles for the lead players, there's also an amusing and cleverly interspersed sub-plot. It revolves around Captain Wickett's nephew, Mr. John Darlington (Paul Fitzgerald), and Miss Pickles' niece, Miss Alexandrina Crosbie (Haviland Morris). Their relationship serves as a catalyst for the legal contretemps between their elders. To propel the action forward, the playwright has created a half dozen characters, (including two women), all played with a formidable display of versatility by Michael Arkin. His spin on the lawyer who represents Miss Pickles in her breach of contract suit as well as the hapless defendant (Captain Wickett, naturally!) is deliciously droll.
Not the least of the pleasures of this world premiere come from the elegant and apt staging. Derek McLane has created a splendidly authentic and versatile Victorian parlor. Its upholstery rises (quite literally) to the occasions when Wickett and Pickles air their grievances in court, its tall windows created with an assist from lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski. As the petty hostilities threaten rapprochement, those mauve walls take on an equally precarious angle -- a fine visual metaphor for increasingly closed-in, closed-off lives. To accentuate the shades and shapes of the sets, Jess Goldstein has provided a stylish wardrobe straight out of Godey's Ladies' Book. (Be sure to catch the exhibit of at the rear of the lobby which features pictures and information about the styles of the period, as well as some of Ms. Goldstein's costume sketches).
To clarify the title, there's this audience aside by the appalled Wickett when his landlady asks him to call her by his given name:
My tongue positively rebelled at the prospect of addressing Miss Pickles as Amelia. A 'Miss Pickles' one could ask for another biscuit an open window shut, or a little less flour in the gravy. An 'Amelia' though -- one closed windows for an 'Amelia.' For an 'Amelia' one put down one' book and ran upstairs to fetch a shawl! In my easy chair I was anything but.Of course calling Miss Pickles of the consistently sour face Amelia is nothing compared to calling her Mrs. Wickett. When it comes to the realization of the situation he's gotten himself into by having the last word in their breach of cntract courtroom battle, Wickett's incomprehensible sputters passing for that to him inconceivable form of address makes The Uneasy Chair so easy to enjoy.
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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998