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A CurtainUp Review

Comedy is the saving grace which makes life bearable.— S. N. Behrman in his own memoir, published a year before his death in 1973.
Carolyn McCormick as Marion Froude in S.N. Behrman's Biography
Carolyn McCormick as Marion Froude in S.N. Behrman's Biography
(Photo by Gregory Costanzo)
The heyday of the drawing room comedy is as dead as the perennial doornail. And yet, some of the plays by the sharpest practitioners of the genre, like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, keep proving themselves to be eminently revivable.

Not as well known on the Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional revival circuit, is S.N. Behrman, which prompts an instant hurrah for the Pearl Theatre Company for ending its 20th Century American play season with one of Behrman's wittiest comedies, Biography. The play, which in 1932 had a for then successful run of 262 performances, revolves around Marian Froude, a portrait artist whose fame and fortune stems less from the superiority of her work than the renown of her subjects, not to mention her colorful personal life.

Like Hollywood's screwball comedy heroines famously identified with Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard, Marian Froude is a woman way ahead of the feminist curve for whom a happy ending doesn't necessarily involve the chiming of wedding bells. Besides having the courage to bypass a traditional happily ever after ending, Behrman also enriched his snappy drawing room repartee with substantial ideas that are remarkable undated.

As he did with his excellent 2005 revival of Shaw's Widower's Houses, J. R. Sullivan has not indulged in any new-fangled updating (though he does, most commendably, eliminate smoking which is mentioned as part of the extensive stage directions common to the period). Instead, Sullivan relies on the actors to bring Behrman's characters to meaningful life and leaves it to the viewers to draw their own conclusions about seeing the paralells between Marion's story and today's seemingly unquenchable thirst for personal memoirs and once vulnerable and honorable young men who turn into one-track minded stuffed shirts or zealots.

The play unfolds in three single scene acts over a period of five weeks, and Sullivan sticks to the two-intermission format. The setting is Marion Froude's Fifty-Seventh Street home and studio (a delicious clutter of easels, canvases and furniture by scenic designer Harry Feiner). Each scene takes place around tea time (and tea is served).

The plot is set in motion when a young highly principled editor who hates everything about Marion's world but sees the commercial value of a tell-all for his gossip driven magazine persuades her to write a memoir. Given that she's in a fallow period, the $2000 advance offered (during this depression year of 1932 that was enough to feed a whole family for a year) plus the idea that revisiting her past would be fun and enlightening, she agrees. The girlhood lover who's recently reappeared in her life, is appalled by her memoir writing which he sees as a threat to his impending U.S. Senate campaign. A more recent lover, a self-absorbed hammy actor, sees it as an opportunity for publicizing himself. Not surprisingly, the young editor, like everyone who basks in the warmth of Marion's sunny personality, also succumbs to her charm. Others in the service of either adding to the memoir-induced complications or resolving them are a Viennese composer friend, the would-be Senator's fiancee and her rich and powerful father. Oh, and, of course, a devoted maid.

While there are intimations of the Great Depression and the dark clouds looming over Europe, Behrman remains true to the drawing room/screwball comedy genre — in this case, the situation of Marion's literary endeavor and the passions it arouses. The make or break factor in making this work as a comedy with heart is a leading lady who makes Marion an irresistible grown-up charmer— sophisticated enough to look beneath other people's surface foibles without condemnation so that by play's end everyone, including Marion, is a little wiser and stronger. Director Sullivan is blessed to have such a leading lady in Carolyn McCormick, a tall, dark-haired beauty with a million dollar smile. As she brought considerable dignity and growth to a play I saw her in a few seasons back at Second Stage (Privilege) so she is exactly the witty and and free spirited heroine Biography calls for, the sort of person who, as her friend composer friend Feydak puts it "always has someone waiting for her."

McCormick, a Pearl guest player, is well supported by several other guest artists: Tom Galantinch as stuffed shirt and first love, Leander Nolan, better known as Bunny to Marion. . .Fletcher McTaggart in a brief but amusing turn as the self absorbed actor Warwick Wilson. . . Kyra Miller and George McDaniel as Bunny's fiancee and her influential, rich dad, Slade and Orrin Kinnicott. The cast's three Pearl regulars are Sean McNall and Dominic Cuskern who between them have logged in close to thirty shows, and Carol Schultz who has appeared twenty-seven times in roles ranging from maids (as in Biography) to leading ladies.

McNall's boyish good looks suit the role of the angry young man who's not too angry to fall madly in love with Marion. Cuskern is on the mark as the Viennese composer whose brother, also a composer, seems to overshadow his reputation even now that he's dead. As for Schultz, she gives new meaning to the idea of making the most of a minor part.

There's yet another major contributor to the success of this revival, costume designer Liz Covey. She's got everyone dressed as if they'd just stepped out of the pages of a 1932 fashion magazine. Her costumes for Ms. McCormick are sheer perfection, from an apple green outfit (when and why did designers stop using that oh so flattering shade of green?) to a smashing red dress and coat, and an elegant black evening gown.

Of course, what makes the excellent cast and handsome production soar is the script with its sharp observations and humor. To end with just a few choice examples from some of the leading players.

From Feydak, there's the epigramatic sum-up of people like Marion and everyone else: "There are two kinds of people in one's life—people whom one keeps waiting—and the people for whom one waits" and his "Success is a great muffler" in response to young Kurt's plan to remain a fierce social critic even when he's successful.

From Marion come ruminations about her autobiography: She enjoys "the silence and solitude writing enforces on one" and comments that since one can never be sure what made certain memories so acute, that "it's like recalling a landscape without color, a kind of color-blindness of memory" She also anticipates a letdown with "After you've written your biography what else could there possibly be left for you to do?" But, unlike the vain actor who sees his inclusion in her memoir as a way of achieving immortality, she's realistic when she tells him "I think immortality is an over-rated commodity."

Behrman beautifully sums up the differences between Marion and Kurt with her telling him that studying him has made her see "why so many movements against injustice become such absolute—tyrannies" and his calling her trying to avoid scenes unrealistic because "life isn't a drawing room."

Kurt is has a point. Drawing rooms and conversations laced with clever bon mots certainly don't play a big part of modern life, on or off stage — so why not spend a few hours re-visiting Marion's drawing room with its always amusing and stimulating chatter.


By S.N. Behrman
Directe by J.R. Sullivan
Carolyn McCormick (Marion Froude), Dominic Cuskern (Melchior Feydak), Tom Galantich (Leander Nolan), George McDaniel (Orrin Kinnicott), Sean McNall (Richard Kurt), Fletcher McTaggart (Warwick Wilson), Kyra Miller (Slade Kinnicott), Carol Schultz (Minnie)
Sets: Harry Feiner
Costumes: Liz Covey
Lights: Stephen Petrilli
Sound: Jane Shaw
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with 2 intermissions
The Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Marks Place, 212-598-9802
From 4/13/07 to 5/20/07; opening 4/22/07
Tickets: $40 to $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on April 21st.
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