So here's the general premise: At the outset of The Damask Cheek, a comedy of manners by John Van Druten and Lloyd Morris, that Upper East Side swell Jimmy Randall is about to announce his engagement to Calla Longstreth, a brash actress. Although she's beneath his social status, Jimmy's attraction is not surprising; Calla has pizzazz. But then Neil Harding claims an attraction to Jimmy's homely cousin Rhoda, who's visiting from England. Though it's hard to imagine any refined ingénue returning Neil's affection (at least not until he gets a haircut), only a fool would bet the family silver that by evening's end these two couples will remain intact. Theoretically anyway, the fun is to be had in watching how the four young lovers get reconfigured.
The original 1942 production of The Damask Cheek died a premature death on Broadway, despite a distinguished cast led by film star Flora Robson (fresh from hit movies like Wuthering Heights and The Sea Hawk). Act, Inc. to the rescue! This venerable St. Louis summer theater company revels in resurrection. An obscure play from 1942 is right up its alley; if that 1942 comedy is set in 1909 (as this one is) and features a set cluttered with sofas, settees and chairs (as this one does), all the better.
Just one caveat here. The Damask Cheek comes by its obscurity honestly. Although Van Druten enjoyed a notable career as a playwright (The Voice of the Turtle, I Remember Mama) and a director (The King and I), those later triumphs do not salvage this mostly static talk-a-thon.
Some of the performances are facile. As Jimmy, the dutiful son who is saddled with a mother (Eleanor Mullin) descended from Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Paul Edwards conveys a keen sense of ennui and privilege. Zoe Sullivan brings a sassy edge to Jimmy's fiancée Calla, the lowly actress who hopes to devour hefty portions of society life but instead finds the upper crust distasteful. Sullivan has blended Eve Arden's sarcasm with Rosalind Russell's spirit. Her assured concoction gives the evening some much-needed punch.
Ultimately, though, two and a half hours of dusty talk is likely to wear down actor and audience alike. According to the playbill, Act, Inc. takes pride in its ability to "unearth" forgotten plays from the past. But too often of late (Diana of Dobson's, Alice Sit-by-the-Fire, The Romantic Age, now The Damask Cheek), the company has been less an archaeologist and more a glorified embalmer.
This season's second Act, Inc. offering, Travels with My Aunt, is not so old, but it too is beset by daunting problems. Adapted from Graham Greene's 1969 novel about a retiree who is sucked into the nefarious escapades of his flamboyant aunt, this 1989 script won a Laurence Olivier Award — not as Best New Play or even Best New Comedy — but rather as Best New Entertainment. Indeed, this version of Travels with My Aunt is hardly a play; the experience is more akin to watching an audio book gone haywire. It is a listening experience made visual. The actors are required to utter extended lines like, "'She was only twelve years older than I am,' my aunt said accusingly." Instead of having Henry declare to his aunt, "You must love Mr. Visconti a great deal," here the line is, "'You must love Mr. Visconti a great deal,' I said." This literary affectation is self-conscious at best and exhausting at worst.
Four inventive, energetic actors (Paul Cereghino, Jake Ferree, Michael Juncal, Jonathon Morgan) share the role of erstwhile bank manager Henry Pulling and then divvy up a multitude of other parts, including Aunt Augusta. I admire their bravado (Ferree's Parisian taxi driver is especially winning). But, rather than being hamstrung by this exercise in irrelevance, had this sprightly quartet performed the 1960 British stage revue, Beyond the Fringe, for which the four actors seem eminently well suited, I surely would have had a more felicitous time (he said ruefully).
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