Seen on Broadway: The 1940 play Old Acquaintance has been forgotten on Broadway. John Van Druten's look inside the prickly life-long friendship between two female writers has endured instead at the movies, first with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in 1943, then as a sexed-up 1981 remake, somewhat scandalously directed by the late-career George Cukor, with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset. Kicking off the 2007-2008 season, the Roundabout Theatre Company has dusted the source material off and put it on display as its summer show at the American Airlines Theatre. When not mixing their martinis (the show must set some sort of record for scenes of alcohol preparation), stage veterans Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris throw off the shackles of their typewriters and mix it up with each other, in a medium-flame high style that makes for an amusing lightweight evening. The films, which add a more pronounced backstory to their bickering, hang more in the memory. But, save for a weak, and weakly acted, subplot with the secondary leads falling in love on a dime—the playwright is on firmer ground with middle-aged women contending with loneliness and each other—this is one of those revivals that's about as good as it could be, with the leading ladies and director Michael Wilson removing the seal from its time capsule and having a look inside.
Credit is due set designer Alexander Dodge, for the exquisite upholstery. This is a typically opulent Roundabout production at the American Airlines, and his set for Colin's Katherine should be preserved rather than struck once the show closes. Katherine, the more literary of the two, lives the more straitened life, but you wouldn't really know it from her Greenwich Village apartment (pictured), with its expansive windows (and servant, who is right there with the drinks and chicken sandwiches when she receives guests, who include the younger boyfriend she is trying to fend off). The first and third of the show's three acts take place here; in the last, it's Christmas time, and a lovely snow is falling. The second is situated in the Park Avenue apartment of the one-upping and vainglorious Mildred (Harris), whose downscale novels have brought great wealth but little satisfaction. Besides her questionable taste, its think-pink walls and inhumanly polished marble floors express her deep-rooted insecurity, which also seeps out from David C. Woolard's clothes-chinchilla furs and too-bright colors to set off fire alarms. Mildred has to stand out, and the play is about how the more sensible Katherine and a few other reality checks cut her piss-elegant pretensions down to human size.
The 1940s ambiance is maintained by Paul Huntley's hair and wig design, Rui Rita's handsome lighting, and a pleasant, typewriters-clacking score composed by sound designer John Gromada. [ Global Scenic Services Inc. and PRG Scenic Technologies provided the scenery, and PRG the lights.] Old Acquaintance is likely to appeal mostly to movie buffs who can now reference the play when the subject comes up in conversation, but the uninitiated will find it an undemanding warm-weather diversion.
Seen Off Broadway: The playwright Neil LaBute must be paid by the word, or maybe the letter. The only other explanation for his profligate pen is that he enjoys opening psychic wounds and inflicting the damage onto the audience, who watch like surgical observers in an operating room. In the last year LaBute has had two Off Broadway plays, Some Girl(s) and Wrecks, run successfully, and a misguided film, The Wicker Man, run off the rails, and we are now toward the held-over end of the MCC Theatre's presentation of a third play, In a Dark Dark House, which closes this Saturday at the Lucille Lortel. I hadn't been to LaButeLand in a while, but it hasn't changed much.
Running a merciful 90 minutes, the three-scene show begins with Drew (Ron Livingston), a dissipated lawyer stuck in an alcohol rehab facility, getting his older brother, Gulf War veteran Terry (Frederick Weller), to vouch for his childhood stories of abuse at the hands of Todd, a camp counselor with a pedophilic streak. (Wise to his constant lies, the clinic's staff wants proof of Todd's existence.) In the second scene, Terry has a flirtation/confrontation with Jennifer (Louisa Krause), the 16-year-old manager of a miniature golf course who, we come to learn, is Todd's daughter. Their edgy, teasing interaction is left dangling, as Terry meets up with Drew in the latter's backyard for a final go-round of secrets and lies. The sequence is unsatisfactory, however, as what we learn about Terry's own childhood doesn't quite square with his perceived need to avenge himself upon Todd. The play's final image is more exasperating than ambiguous, and the whole show suggests that the author fell under the spell of the excellent independent film Mysterious Skin (which deals with some of the same themes) and was trying to fit it into his own sour template.
Giving credit where credit is due, the show, gamely directed by Carolyn Cantor, is watchable, and the three leads are fine even when the writing hits wobbly patches. Its chief pleasure, if that is a word that exists in this curdled universe, is Beowulf Borrit's transformer of a set, whose changes are signaled by blasts from Robert Kaplowitz's audio design. The stone wall and other features of the clinic (pictured) give way in the first scene change to the cartoon-like facades of the golf course, which has an operational-seeming hole that audience members should be allowed to play following the show. All that remains in the third scene, set on the grounds of Drew's McMansion, is some of the rockwork and the grass, whose roots are exposed in the tiered environment. This interesting environment is lit maybe a bit too brightly by Ben Stanton in the first and third scenes-the AstroTurf has a basic unreality that needed to be tamped down-but the illumination works splendidly in the second. Jenny Mannis' costumes do their part to demarcate the lot in life between the two brothers. ( Daedalus constructed the set, with Hayden Production Services providing the lights and Masque Sound the audio.) In a Dark Dark House is calculated to leave you in the dark, but exposing a little light onto some aspects of the plot might have made for a more satisfyingly disturbing experience. --Robert Cashill