Four years ago, the Atlantic Theater Company struck gold with David Mamet’s new version of Harley Granville Barker’s 1905 comedy of manners The Voysey Inheritance. Now it’s enlisted another Pulitzer-winning playwright, David Auburn (Proof), to adapt another musty social satire of the early 1900s, Langdon Mitchell’s The New York Idea. And though lavishly designed and frequently diverting, the production (at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre) isn’t, alas the giddy slice of Edith Whartonesque life one hopes for.
Mitchell set out to send up ”the New York idea of marriage” — i.e., ”Marry for whim and leave the rest to the divorce court!” (one of the few lines from the original play that Auburn leaves almost entirely intact). He introduces a scotch-drinking, horse-race-loving heroine, Cynthia Karslake (Jaime Ray Newman), a divorcée who’s sent shock waves of disapproval through her second-husband-to-be’s stiff-lipped family. Never mind that her fiancé — the eminently sensible judge Philip Philimore (Michael Countryman) — is a divorced man himself, and his ex-wife is an ever-present redheaded dynamo named Vida (Francesca Faridany) with a wardrobe full of kimonos and peacock-feather hats. Also ever-present: Cynthia’s flustered former husband John Karslake (Jeremy Shamos) and his British pal Wilfred Cates-Darby (Rick Holmes), who has his own designs on the divorcées. Either one — Sir Wilfred isn’t terribly picky. They’re quite a colorful lot, particularly when everyone begins arguing over the Karslakes’ prize mare Cynthia K — who, of course, represents much more than a horse.
Director Mark Brokaw keeps the proceedings galloping along, aided by a mostly first-rate cast. (Countryman, for one, is a period-piece expert.) The problem is Cynthia — the actress, not the horse. High-necked blouses and sweeping skirts aside, everything about Newman — her gestures, her voice, her carriage — screams 21st century; meanwhile, her costars are all trapped (as they should be) in 1906.
Still, Auburn has crafted a dandy little work that’s tailor-made for regional, community, and college theaters: 12 juicy roles, outlandish costumes, adult themes couched in snappy, profanity-free dialogue. He’s done more than adapt Mitchell’s play; he’s essentially rebuilt it from the ground up. In addition to streamlining dialogue and fine-tuning characters, he’s excised three roles — a valet, a footman, and a sister — plus a rather questionable punchline involving a ”mulatto.” He’s also changed Vida’s maid from English to French because…well, isn’t ze accent just funnier? Even if this Atlantic production lacks a certain champagne-like fizz, Auburn’s script isn’t short on pop. B
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