If bad marriages are a dime a dozen, then boring unions are even more commonplace. And dull mates whose relationships are upended when a hotter, younger man falls for the wearied and overlooked female spouse? They are the stuff of timeless theater and great musicals apparently, as evidenced by A Minister’s Wife, Lincoln Center Theater’s new off-Broadway adaptation (with songs) of George Bernard Shaw’s turn-of-the-20th century marital comedy Candida.
The story is fairly simple. Dedicated Socialist Reverend James Morell (Marc Kudisch) lives and preaches in London’s East End, where he’s determined to do good works through sermons and home visits. His much younger wife, the bewitching Candida (Kate Fry), has spent the last month with their children at her father’s in the country. She’s returning for a one-night-only stay when Morell becomes so engrossed writing one of his speeches that he forgets to meet her at the train station — and she happily makes her way home with the help of a vagabond teenage poet, Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert). The boy, a former rich kid who was disowned by his parents for dropping out of Oxford, proceeds to challenge Morell for his wife’s affections — and with all his sweet talk, he could win them.
Theirs is a romantic rivalry of opposites — the old and the young, the forgetful and the attentive, the practical and the romantic, the well-off and the poor, the workaholic and the loafer — with Candida in the middle in age, status and demeanor. She’s gorgeous and poised (an entire song revolves around her being ”enchanting”), with expertly cut clothes that point to her moneyed family and a slightly lower class accent that belies their modest beginnings. Daddy was a humble boy who got rich owning sweatshops — and was eventually publicly shamed by Morell for his business practices. Candida supported her husband at the time, but her month in the country points to a much different sentiment. Fry, who has played the part since Minister‘s 2009 Chicago staging, deftly relays a woman who has spent so much energy being compromising and nonplussed that she may have been unaware of her own unhappiness until Eugene points it out. It’s a moving performance — one that’s equaled by the passion in Steggert’s. The entire play, like Candida, lights up when he arrives. The songs sound better. The jokes land harder. And the period set looks prettier.
There’s no denying that Minister is a different sort of musical. The tunes by Joshua Schmidt, who also composed the music to the award-winning Adding Machine, are discordant (think lesser known Sondheim rather than that other Shaw adaptation, My Fair Lady) and bare. The production, staged in three-quarter round with only one set by director Michael Halberstam, is intimate. The length is short — book writer Austin Pendleton fits Shaw’s three acts into only 90 minutes, with songs. The ending is unsettling, and for a comedy, it takes a lot of thinking to get through — but like all good things, it’s worth it. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)