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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Wharton One-Acts (2001)
An International Episode and The Rembrandt
Entering the spacious lobby -- its magnificent curved stairway and Lenox Mountain vistas visible from the Theater, the Dining Room backed by stone terraces -- one has the feeling that the Mount's Parlor Theater has been brought to Kemble Street on a magic carpet, undergoing a face lift along the way. The new Salon is configured exactly like the Plunkett Street space so that the audience still flanks the actors at close range, but in more comfortable seats and more pristine and airy surroundings.
The general excitement of the Company's historic expansion has had a very positive ripple effect on the plays and the players. The current One-Acts are the best and most substantial I've seen and so are the performances. Both are smartly directed by Normy Noël.
Dennis Krausnick's adaptation of Henry James's comedy of American vs. English Manners, An International Episode, is the longer and more intricate of the paired plays. It spans a one year period in 1875 and moves through three locales.
The action begins in the New York City office of Jack Westgate (Jeffrey Kent) an American tycoon. From there it's on to the Newport country house where he has sent two young English aristocrats, Lord Lambeth (Ethan Flower) and Percy Beaumont (John Rahal Sarrouf) to be entertained by his wife Katherine (Corinna May) and her "bluestocking " sister Betsy Alden (Kate Holland) and his office assistant and Betsy's would-be suitor Willie Woodly (Ben Lambert)
The last two scenes skip a year and take us to a London Hotel. (The scene and time change and length could easily, and perhaps more advantageously, make this a stand-alone two-acter). The hotel is temporary home to the American sisters whose European visit rekindles the abruptly aborted relationships (a romance between Lord Lambeth and Betsy, and the battle of wits and clashing opinions between Katherine and Percy. Katherine, who's proudly and defiantly American does not share her sister's admiration of England and Englishmen, although Percy suggests "Perhaps we disagree in order to agree". The pragmatic Englishman has some of the play's sharpest lines, as when he tells his love-smitten aristocratic friend "Love only happens to shepherds and coal miners".
Company veteran Corinna May, who has turned in one stellar performance after another, does not disappoint as the wary Katherine Westgate. Another Shakespeare & Compay regular, Diane Prusha, is also at hand. If her double portrayal of a flustered Midwestern matron visiting the Westgate country house and a regal British duchess are any indication, Prusha has moved to a new level in her career. As for John Rahal Sarrouf, the flair for comedy he displayed in previous One-Acts has become even sharper. The company newcomers, Ethan Flower and Kate Holland, also acquit themselves most impressively. Flower, besides being an attractive leading man, is a good comedian. The opening scene when he and Sarrouf arrive in the Westgate office gets An International Episode off to a hilarious start.
While the props for both plays are minimal, the costumes are luscious and true to the period of each. The Wharton play, The Rembrandt, brings five of the actors from the James play back on stage. This Edwardian farce is shorter, lighter, an episode more than a play. But the adaptation and direction and the three leads have unearthed the comic potential in the story of Miles Hackett (Sarrouf again, and brilliantly funny), a museum curator Whe he is manipulated by his philanthropic and exuberant cousin Eleanor (Holland) into implying that the painting the impoverished Mrs. Fontage (Prusha, in yet another amusing role) thinks is an unsigned Rembrandt might fetch$1,000. His little deception leads to more complications. It also reintroduces Corinna May as the deliciously over the top Mrs. Crozier. She is Hackett's boss back from a trip to India which has filled her with fervor for Far Eastern religion. She also brigs news that ends Hackett's disaster filled day on a bright note.
While the set consists of a few simple props, the costumes for both plays are luscious and true to the period of each. Speaking of costumes, there are a group of elegantly attired mannequins in the lobby who look as if they had stepped right out of the Gilded Age when Springlawn was built. They are, in fact replicas of characters from past productions in the Wharton parlor -- not just the One-Acts but the full-fledged productions likeHouse of Mirth and Custom of the Country. Could the carefully scripted and staged Wharton One-Acts 2001 be a signal of a transition to increasingly meatier matinee fare? Given the company's amazing leap forward, I'm willing to bet my intermission cookies that it is.