Act Inc., a summer theater company that revels in nostalgia (not just for the old but also for the obscure), is presenting its annual double bill of two plays resurrected from theater of yore. This year's unifying theme concerns love and marriage. St. John Hankins' 1907 British comedy of manners The Cassilis Engagement and, from 1922, Anne Nichols' more lowbrow Abie's Irish Rose, both deal with the aggravations imposed by adults who intrude on young love.
Abie's Irish Rose is a bona fide theater anomaly. The original 1922 New York production ran for more than five years. All these decades later, it remains the third longest-running nonmusical (after Life With Father and Tobacco Road) in Broadway history. Yet who today has seen this pariah? The Romeo and Juliet spinoff about the uproar that ensues after Abie Levy (Ryan Cooper), a dutiful Jewish son, secretly brings home Catholic bride Rose Mary Murphy (the sassy Maggie Murphy), is rarely staged because it is reputed to be one of the most politically incorrect comedies of all time. But although the evening is indeed a lumpy stew of clichés, obvious mistaken identities and mispronounced words (oh, those silly immigrants), the script is hardly malicious. At times it even evokes a naive sweetness.
Director Steve Callahan has assembled an excellent cast. There's not a weak performance in the ensemble. In a script that invites excess, the evening is noted for its restraint. As Solomon Levy, the father who would rather die than see his son marry a Catholic girl, Barry Hyatt transcends ethnicity. He reminds one of an impish Barry Fitzgerald, yet when he frowns he morphs into a surly Edward G. Robinson. As Rose's hot-tempered Irish papa, Jesse Russell is the whale to Hyatt's sardine. Hyatt and Russell are as incompatibly charming as Mutt and Jeff.
Legend has it that Abie's original New York reviews were terrible. They weren't, at least not all of them. Critics seemed to be more offended by the comedy's longevity (five years!) than by its existence. But the play will not outstay its welcome here, because it's only running for one more weekend. Act Inc. is providing a painless way to fill in what for most of us has been a missing link in theater lore.
If Abie's Irish Rose tells a tale of warring fathers, The Cassilis Engagement is a story of warring mothers. This might well be the St. Louis debut of any play by St. John Hankin, a minor British dramatist whose refined comedies took pleasure in skewering England's tea-sipping upper crust. As its title suggests, The Cassilis Engagement concerns the betrothal of wealthy young ne'er-do-well Geoffrey Cassilis to the dourly named Ethel Borridge, whose family lacks pedigree. Primarily because Ethel's mother is monstrously common (she'd fit right in with the working-class parents in Abie's Irish Rose), Geoffrey's mother sets out to break the engagement. The script's emphasis on presumably pithy one-line jabs echoes Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which it followed by twelve years, even as its class-consciousness foreshadows Pygmalion, which George Bernard Shaw would write six years later. But it's not on a level with either of those plays.
The production, directed by Rob Grumich, seems to lack a point of view — or at least the proper point of view. Ethel's appalling mother (Teresa Doggett) is so clearly the villain; Geoffrey's mother (Liz Hopefl) is so righteous. But perhaps Hankin would have preferred that there be no obvious heroine; perhaps he would have preferred for everyone, male and female, young and old alike, to be equally unsympathetic. Both actresses work hard in the lead roles — one loudly, one softly — but there's not much to work with. As my mind wandered from this brittle antique, I found myself recalling Act Inc.'s staging of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables five summers ago. In that production Doggett and Hopefl were both indelible. Even in lesser roles, they had so much more to work with. As always, the play's the thing — and how long has it been since Act Inc. has revived that 1926 Molnar chestnut?
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