August 28th, 2005

American Player's Theatre, "The Play's The Thing," and "Macbeth"

On Sunday, August 28, we drove over to Spring Green for a "double header" of plays at American Players Theatre. The matinee was "The Play's the Thing," by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Molnár (1878-1952), probably the greatest playwright to come out of Hungary, was celebrated all over the world at the height of his fame in the 1920s and 30s, but is now best remembered in the West for the play - "Liliom" - on which Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel" is based, and for adaptations of his farce "Play at the Castle" adapted as "The Play's the Thing" by P.G. Wodehouse and later again by Tom Stoppard (the latter as "Rough Crossing"). Theatre buffs will also remember Judi Dench, Leo McKern and Edward Woodward in a West End production of "The Wolf"; a National Theatre production of "The Guardsman" with Diana Rigg for Molnár's centenary and a new musical at the Donmar Warehouse last year based on "The Guardsman". In his native Hungary, Molnár has been a neglected figure for years, thanks to the banning of his plays by the communist regime, but a strong revival has sprung from Budapest, his home city. "The Guardsman", starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine in its 1925 American premiere, and "The Swan", was made into a 1956 film with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. Representative of the style of the Belle-Époque, the “beautiful era” before World War I, his comedies show an attachment to what he termed “a world where nothing is quite as important as knowing what brand of champagne to order".

The plot of "The Play's The Thing" is typically Wodehousian. Two famous playwrights have arrived at a friend's seaside castle to celebrate the completion of their new operetta, with its brilliant score by their new young protege. They intend to surprise his light of love, their leading prima donna, but are themselves surprised and dismayed to overhear her in in the middle of an apparently torrid love scene with an old flame. Since they hear neither the beginning nor the end of the conversation, they do not realize that she intends to remain loyal to her new fiance and is letting her old friend down easily.

The composer swears to tear up the music he has written for her and threatens suicide. The more level-headed of the two playwrights calms him to wait, faced not only with the prospect of a scandal but also of losing the valuable score. While others go to bed, he hatches his plan--to incorporate the unctious dialog they heard into the script of a play, and then coerce the two former lovers into performing it to demonstrate that what was overheard by accident was only a "rehersal."

The idea of Molnar’s 1925 farce came about after he overheard his wife, actress Lilli Darvas, talking of another love interest. The relief which followed his discovery that she was merely rehearsing a new part inspired this delightful comedy. The APT cast performed this very enjoyable show with impeccable comic timing and wonderful farcical expression and mannerisms. Kudos in particular wer due to company veteran Brian Robert Mani, who played the put-upon former lover with fine injured amour-propre as he heroically chews through the deliberatly bathetic and humiliating role he is given in the play within the play. The dialog by Wodehouse is wonderfully witty and well up to the Master's mid-season form.

This "Macbeth" was the second we have seen in recent memory, and showed how much depth and variety of nuance can be derived from Shakespeare's works. The prior production was a robust and musclely show, very much in the classic tradition, with Johnathan Smoots as a fierce and barbaric Macbeth. This version was much more pyschological than some, with much of the supernatural action taking place only visible to the gradually unravelling Macbeth, played by Jim DeVita. (In the scene of the witch's prophecy in the second half, Macbeth DRINKS the hideous potion--enough to cause anyone to see visions.) This "Macbeth" was chilling, although not as thrilling as the prior production in my mind. Subtlety is fine, but some shows call for a bit of over-the-top, and I think "Macbeth" is one of them.