All Frosting, No Cake

Marriage isn't the only thing impossible here

Impossible Marriage

Theatre at St. John's, 5000 Washington at Kingshighway

Call 314-995-2679.

Beth Henley's Impossible Marriage gives actors an impossible task: making melodramatic phrases resemble real-life conversation. The beautiful set, lights and costumes and the outstanding performance of Donna Weinsting can't rescue this play from the depths of its own dreadful dialogue, in which characters say things such as "It is my fate" and "Now is my time; I must take it." These overwrought lines might be funny if played lightly for comic effect, but instead they're played in earnest, as if this was a Pinter drama and not a backyard farce.

Henley is best known for her Pulitzer-prize winning Crimes of the Heart, in which a trio of eccentric sisters and their lovers or would-be lovers come together around a critical event -- the arrest of one sister for shooting her husband. Impossible Marriage is Henley's attempt to re-create that success, here with two sisters and their lovers or would-be lovers. There's also a shooting in this play, again used to comic effect, but it all seems pale: a shadow of past Crimes, a Marriage with no future.

The character names are the first clue that we're in a fake world where things are supposed to be clever and funny: Kandall Kingsley (who likes candles -- yes, it's that trite) has two daughters: Floral and Pandora. Weinsting plays the matronly Kandall with impeccable comic timing -- she is the one bright light (dare I say "candle in the darkness"?) of the production. The "impossible marriage" of the title is to be between younger sister Pandora, who is obsessed with blue fairy wings, and a much older writer, Edvard Lunt. Most of the first act is spent discussing the inappropriate match and Lunt's outrageous character -- he's "an artist who's been known to wear a ponytail!" Pandora describes both their unexpected affair and her fear of marrying someone "with gray hairs all over his body and spots on his hands," but, confusingly, when Lunt appears he is not gray or spotted or ponytailed. John Bratkowski plays Lunt as a sort of absent-minded professor, and it's hard to see how or why Pandora fell in love with him.

Pandora's sister, Floral (which may be easier to believe as a Southern name but still smacks of playwriting and not reality), is hugely pregnant with a child that is not her husband's. Jennifer Ahrens handles the physical aspects of her character quite well -- her nervous gesture of tugging at her dress reveals an inner life that's not present in any of the other characters. Unfortunately, it's hard to hear many of her lines, either because of her Georgia accent or as a result of low volume.

Hunter Adams plays Floral's husband, Jonsey, with ease, and his second-act revelation of sexual secrets is the most interesting part of the play. But he, like almost all of the actors, proceeds at such a slow pace that any humor that might be gleaned from the script is undermined. The pauses between the lines hang there waiting for significance, but there is none. If we are to enjoy this world that Henley has created (and that's a difficult task, given her clunky dialogue), the actors need to move crisply through conversations. Only when Weinsting is on stage is there enough energy to believe that this is a comedy. David Lintzenich has a few funny moments as Sidney Lunt, Edvard's estranged son, but they're too late and too far between.

With Impossible Marriage, Henley is more an unsuccessful sitcom writer than an award-winning playwright. Even the show's structure -- three acts with an intermission every half-hour -- adds to the TV feeling of the production. Director and set designer Deb Duffin moves the actors around the cobblestone-patio set gracefully, and lighting designer Bob Fowler creates marvelous atmosphere. The costumes are nice to look at, and the varieties of tea and cocoa available in the lobby during the intermissions are a nice touch. But it's all frosting on a missing cake, fairy wings fluttering in the breeze.

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