Monday, January 30, 2017

Yours Unfaithfully

So much depends on where you begin a play. Do you start when character A is behaving well? Or when character B is? Do you start at the foundation of their relationship or in media res? In Yours Faithfully, written in 1933 but currently getting its world premiere at the invaluable Mint Theater Company, playwright Miles Malleson starts a little too in media res for my taste.

Max von Essen; Elisabeth Gray
(photo: Richard Termine)

[spoilers follow] 

Anne and Stephen have been together for eight years. Many of their friends consider them an amazing couple. In fact, their compatibility has been rated at 80%, when most couples are rated at 20%. But there is trouble in the 80% paradise, or at least a sense of unease. Stephen has lost his joie de vivre and succumbed to writer's block. Anne is happily busy with the school she runs and their children (never seen), and she suspects that Stephen needs a new muse/lover. She chooses their friend Diana, who is just coming out of mourning her husband. Stephen and Diana eagerly accept Anne's generosity, and soon Stephen is happy and writing again--and perhaps more in love with Anne than ever, due to his new freedom. Just one problem: no matter how much Anne tells herself that jealousy is beneath her, she cannot help what she feels: terribly, terribly, terribly jealous.

Now comes the in media res problem: we find out, almost in passing, that Anne and Stephen have long believed in having an open marriage. In fact, some time ago, Anne slept with a friend of theirs for almost a year--a friend who is still in their lives. For me, this leaves too many questions answered. Did Stephen truly handle Anne's past affair with no problem? Has he really gone for years without seeking a lover himself? Why did Anne sleep with the friend? And why didn't Stephen go outside the marriage as well?

I've been trying to figure out why Malleson chose to structure his play this way. I have two theories. The first is that he wanted to tell the story of the husband's affair but felt that audiences would be more sympathetic if the wife had had one first. The other is that this storyline is what actually happened in Malleson's own open marriage. Either way, for me, this structure is a big problem for the play. When Anne decides to have an adventure while Stephen is out of town, Stephen is clearly uncomfortable with her having sex with another man. Why is it a problem now when he was ostensibly okay with her year-long affair in the past? He is so upset, both at Anne's adventure and at the pain she has suffered from her jealousy, that he is ready to give up the whole open marriage idea. It is Anne who wants to continue. I like that Malleson makes his characters complex and unpredictable, but I didn't buy the reality of these particular two people in this particular situation.

It's too bad, too, because much of the play is fascinating. Malleson puts some true wisdom into his characters' mouths, and he makes an interesting case for trying to be above one's "lesser" emotions.

[end of spoilers]

It doesn't help that Max von Essen, an actor I usually enjoy, fails to fully inhabit Stephen. He speeds through his lines with much vigor but little attachment. Stephen Schnetzer, as Stephen's highly moral father, gives a similar performance, and their scenes together uncomfortably resemble running dialogue rather than having soul-deep debates. In all fairness, Malleson gives them a lot of theoretical rather than emotional dialogue, which I imagine is tough to do, and Schnetzer was a replacement who perhaps didn't have sufficient time to grow into the character; whatever the reason(s), however, their scenes are disappointing.

The main redeeming feature of the production is Elisabeth Gray's completely believable, subtle, and smart performance as Anne. Gray navigates the tricky turns of Anne's emotions elegantly; in her hands, Anne's inconsistencies are completely human and true. Also excellent is Todd Cerveris in the relatively small role of Anne's ex-lover. In their big scene together, we get to see what this production might have looked like if all five actors truly inhabited their characters.

I guess some of the weak acting must be the fault of director Jonathan Bank, or perhaps Yours Unfaithfully, with its combination of story and ideas, is just a tough show to do well. (Bank has also overblocked the play, with characters annoyingly moving hither and yon for no particular reason.)  I have always loved Bank's work in the past.

I was also disappointed in the set. I just didn't believe that Anne and Stephen lived there, and the art seemed wrong. The wigs worked against both women, particularly Mikaela Izquierdo as Diana. The wig overwhelmed her face, and its undeniable wigness distracted from her performance. The costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski), on the other hand, were just right for the time and the people.

Miles Malleson

One last comment: playwright Miles Malleson was also a character actor in many old English films. I recently happened to see him in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). Malleson was not a matinee idol, and in Stage Fright his role is to be the guy Jane Wyman does not want to talk to; he is presented as unattractive, asexual. Yet he lived a sexually adventurous life. It's always nice to see that, while movies often limit sex lives to the best looking people, life is more open-minded.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row F)

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