Wedding Bell Blues

If you think marital woes can be a hoot, you're right -- sometimes

This means that certain demands are required of those who do produce it. Most immediately, a production must lead the viewers -- by the hand, if necessary -- into Priestley's universe. Most American playgoers don't know Priestley; those few who do equate him with mysteries like An Inspector Calls. An audience needs to be informed that When We Are Married is a comedy and that laughter is encouraged. How can this be accomplished? There needs to be a big laugh in the first minute, sooner, if possible -- something that will release audience inhibitions. At last Saturday night's performance, the first moderately big laugh occurred 25 minutes into Act 1. For a comedy, 25 minutes of silence -- even attentive silence -- is a mortal wound.

While it's true that Act 1 is mostly exposition, no theater rule states that exposition can't be funny. As staged here, in the first act a viewer could be excused for thinking he'd stumbled into an Ibsen play. Not only do several of the male characters come across as boorish and harsh -- but they're boorish and harsh and humorless. No matter how you do the math, it does not add up to laughter. Priestley subtitled his play "A Yorkshire Farcical Comedy." This production has the Yorkshire, all right; the accents are as thick as cold gravy. But they omitted the farce.

Eventually the momentum takes hold and does provide a fitfully entertaining evening. Although this mounting doesn't flush out any of the themes that Priestley sets forth -- class struggles between young and old and servant and master -- there are some performances of note. As an inebriated newspaper photographer who spouts unexpected good sense ("people has to be easy in their minds to be photographed, nobody ever comes with the toothache to 'ave their photos taken"), Richard Lewis does a bang-up job of conveying a sense of time and place. So too does Suzanne Greenwald as one of the three put-upon wives. Both actors seem to appreciate the energy that is required to bring material like this to life.

Todd Gillenardo and Sara Renschen in The School for Wives
Todd Gillenardo and Sara Renschen in The School for Wives

Details

The School for Wives-By Molière. Performed by St. Louis Shakespeare through July 27 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111.

When We Are Married-By J. B. Priestley. Performed by ACT, Inc. August 1-3 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown at Big Bend. Call 314-725-9108.

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By contrast, Melissa Crowley's young serving maid -- a study in perky perpetual motion -- personifies the production's lack of invention. Surely it's not her fault, but throughout the evening Crowley makes every entrance at the same roadrunner gait. Farce is often thought to require speed, yet paradoxically, in this play the more the actors slow down, the funnier they become. Then too, one of Priestley's goals is to show how, as the masters' lives are affected by startling news, so too are the servants'. With some imagination, Crowley's various appearances could inform the audience about the wild mood swings that are occurring in the household.

It is not to be. Although the production still offers a rare opportunity to encounter a gem of a play, this When We Are Married is also an opportunity missed.

Correction published 7/30/03:
In the original version of this story, Colleen Backer was misidentified as the serving maid, a role performed by Melissa Crowley. In fact, reports theater critic Dennis Brown, Backer gave a delightful performance as the ingénue. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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