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A CurtainUp Review
The Voice of the Turtle
by Adrienne Onofri

Elizabeth Bunch & Nick Toren
Elizabeth Bunch & Nick Toren (Photo: CW Munger)
In The Producers, the most popular show in New York this year, the cross-dressing director Roger de Bris sings about his theatrical vision: "Keep it gay!" This phrase is also heard repeatedly in The Voice of the Turtle, John van Druten's wartime romance first produced in 1943, but it has a very different meaning there. To Sally Middleton, the young actress in Turtle, a gay romance is a casual, commitment-free one—the only kind of relationship she’s looking for after having her heart broken by a married director.

Hearing such archaic lingo can be jarring for an audience, but that's the price you pay for an untampered-with revival. Director Carl Forsman chose not to modify or eliminate dialogue that doesn't jibe with modern sensibilities (which has become a common practice when mounting revivals), and the faithful, old-fashioned production is a great source of pride for Mint Theater Company and Keen Company.

This Voice of the Turtle was first staged in September by Keen. Encouraged by the critical and commercial success of that 16-performance run, Mint Theater Company has reopened the show. While Turtle conforms to Mint's dedication to "worthy but neglected plays" (it's been produced infrequently since the three-year run on Broadway in the '40s), this is the first time Mint has presented another company's work. But it's not the first time that Keen—which is only two years old—has had one of its productions picked up for an extended run off-Broadway: That happened last season with Conor McPherson's The Good Thief, (CurtainUp Review ) which eventually won an Obie award. (Mint was honored at the Obies last season, too.)

Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank has said he was also inspired by "the resonance that the play had at this difficult time": Like New Yorkers in 2001, the characters in Voice of the Turtle struggle to carry on in the face of heartbreak and war.

But the message that's still most timely after almost 60 years is the one about taking a chance on love. Giving your heart to someone means risking pain and disappointment, but you can never enjoy the rewards without taking that risk. This was a rather bold sentiment for 1943, when relationships were not dissected as they are today and singlehood not regarded as a "lifestyle choice".

What makes Voice of the Turtle interesting to contemporary audiences is that the prospective mates, Sally and Bill, get to know each other before they even kiss, that they assess their romantic ideals and the realities of their pasts as they step into a new relationship. People in older plays usually don’t take so long to fall in love since they tend to be focused on marriage, rather than personal fulfillment or mutual respect, when courting.

Sally and Bill's conversation in the last scene could take place in 2001 as well as 1943, and it's a beautifully written and acted scene. It does takes a while to arrive, since the play has three acts, each with two scenes. You might find this deliberate pacing part of Turtle's nostalgic charm—two acts is generally the standard for plays today—or you might consider it a bit too protracted. Certainly the first scene of Act 1 could be tightened, but one must respect the decision to do the play as it was written.

Much of the story revolves around Sally's reckoning with her sexual impulse, a dilemma that's anachronistic by today's mores. The cast rises to the challenge of handling quaint material without seeming cornball, which. can be a pitfall for actors in period pieces. Elizabeth Bunch, Megan Byrne and Nick Toren seem very much like 1940s actors playing 1940s roles.

The Mint production succeeds because it so thoroughly re-creates the era, not just with the original dialogue but with the attentive work of both cast and crew. Music, costumes, hair and set look authentic, and the outstanding detail extends to such props as hatboxes, kitchenware and magazines.

The heartfelt performances reflect the complexities of the characters. Bunch mixes naivete and disillusionment in her portrayal of Sally, and her friendliness toward Bill can be interpreted as flirtatious or part of Sally's wide-eyed sociability—which is appropriate since Sally is fighting her feelings for him. Toren is immensely likable as Bill, balancing chivalry and awkwardness and showcasing the actor’s veritable leading-man presence. Byrne proves an adept character actress, although her Olive is ultimately a discordant figure in this optimistic story.

The Voice of the Turtle is a throwback, to a city and a society that have been profoundly altered. But quality, like that displayed in this production, never goes out of style.

By John van Druten
Directed by Carl Forsman
Cast: Elizabeth Bunch, Nick Toren, Megan Byrne
Set Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Stefan Jacobs
Running Time: 2˝ hours, including two intermissions
Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St., 315-0231, through December 30
Performances Tuesday-Thursday at 7PM, Friday-Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 2PM & 7PM; $35
Opened November 23, 2001
Extended to 1/20/02
Reviewed by Adrienne Onofri, based on November 29, 2001 performance
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