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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Wharton One-Acts: The Other Two and Roman Fever
Both stories beautifully illustrate Dennis Krausnick's skill as a Wharton adapter who can move characters from page to stage without the usual losses accompanying that process. This crème-de-la-crème duo of Wharton à la Krausnick is being given a wonderful production by director Normi Noël at the beautiful Springlawn Theatre where actors arrive and exit on the playing area from the terrace and the hallway where tea, cookies and lemonade are served at intermission.
The opening playlet, The Other Two, uses the device of having Edith Wharton herself as one of the characters. As narrator she talks about her method of writing and then introduces her characters. Her remaining on stage for occasional comments and interchanges may sound like a too precious conceit, but it works and adds considerable comic spice -- especially with Shakespeare veteran Diane Prusha portraying Wharton with just the right mix of stateliness and wry humor.
The setting is New York circa 1903. The first character we meet is Reginald Waythorn (Ethan Flower), a very proper young New York investment banker who is madly in love with his beautiful new wife Alice (Corinna May). In the first flush of marital bliss, Waythorn considers Alice's two previous marriages past history. He is therefore convinced that he became husband #3 with his "eyes wide open" though the ever present author notes that it was "with your ears shut."
As luck would have it Waythorn's marriage is fated to turn into a very proper sort of menage à quatre. Husband #1 (Mark Woollett), whose working class manner and speech make Waythorn mistake him for a piano tuner, becomes a regular visitor to the Waythorn home after his and Alice's twelve-year-old (never seen) daughter becomes ill with typhoid fever. Gus Varick (Andrew Borthwick-Leslie), husband #2, is a member of Waythorn's social circle so that they "understand the same illusions ". When Varick comes into a fortune through an "insider tip" which Waythorn, in the absence of the head of his firm, is assigned to shepherd.
As these ex-husbands increasingly insinuate themselves into the Waythorn household, they also put a new face on Alice's previous life. Waythorn -- and we with him -- discover that the lovely lady of few words, utmost tact and an endless array of sumptuous costumes (bravo, costume designer Arthur Oliver!) may not be quite who she seems. It is Waythorn's acceptance of his situation as a "one-third shareholder in a syndicate" of husbands holding liens on Alice's personality that gives the story its bite.
Corinna May, who is not only breathtakingly lovely but a fine actress, is ideally cast as Alice Waythorn. She does wonders with a smile and her manner of pouring tea for the men in her life. Mark Woollett and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie are equally well cast as the ex-spouses and Michael Burnet ably fills the shoes of the butler and various other characters. In one scene, Ms. Noël gives what is essentially a drawing room comedy a hilarious cutting edge touch by enlisting the whole cast, including the author-narrator, as commuters on a morning rush hour train.
Roman Fever moves forward twenty years, with the strict social rules of the turn of the century bending. This time Ethan Flower provides quite a different sort of romantic interest for Corinna May. In the minor role of a waiter at a hotel in Rome with whom May's character, a bored and unhappy American widow, flirts without really intending to go further. Diane Prusha is back on stage as the soft-spoken Grace Ansley, the less glamorous of the main characters -- two wealthy New York widows who have brought their two daughters to Rome for a holiday. Grace is unashamedly matronly, willing to literally stick to her knitting and leave the greater excitement of life to her vivacious daughter. Alida Slade (Corinna May), on the other hand, is all d untamped down yearnings to be a contender rather than a bystander. As the wife of a successful international lawyer, Alida led a glamorous life. Her new status as "the Slade widow" has brought all that to an end. Even if she were willing to content herself with living through her daughter, she is stuck with a wallflower type daughter, while Grace's Barbara has all the graces Alida thinks an offspring of hers should have.
As Grace knits and Alida seethes with pentup frustration, we learn that the friendship is fraught with tension that dates back to their own youthful Roman Holiday and their subsequent marriages. Alida's frustration and tendency to speak before thinking brings the long-simmering tensions into the open. Roman Fever being one of Wharton's most famous stories, you may not be all that surprised by the surprise ending. Even if you know what's coming, May's Alida is so terrific that it won't matter. She only gets to wear one costume this time around, but, once again, it's a WOW!
Roman Fever is the more emotionally powerful of the two pieces, while the more stylized and comic The Other Two provides lots of laughs. All in all, a well matched, well-acted, well-staged pair of playlets in a unique theatrical environment.
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