Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2008
On Friday night and Saturday afternoon I saw two romantic comedies, written about 70 years apart. Guess which one is considered a classic.
We open on an upper-middle class British couple, married a good dozen years, parents of two children. Enter another man:
A) a wildly romantic teen-aged poet
B) a Texas oil tycoon
The other man expresses his interest in the wife. She:
A) sees him for the silly fop he is
B) falls for him like a giddy schoolgirl
The husband catches wind of the situation and confronts the other man with:
A) a stern talking to
B) a duel with pistols
Comic relief is provided by a tipsy woman with a crush on the husband.
The wife is asked to choose between husband and lover. She:
A) chooses her husband
B) chooses her husband
The couple lives happily ever after. The interloper leaves, heartbroken. The tipsy woman never does get what she wants.
If you guessed A, you’re right. That play is Candida by George Bernard Shaw, presented by the Berkshire Theatre Festival as the opening play of their 80th anniversary season because it was also presented during their first season in 1928. They can present it again in another 80 years and it will still be an enjoyable evening of theatre.
B is The Grass is Greener, written by actor Hugh Williams and his second wife, Margaret Vyner, as a 1958 West End vehicle for themselves. It was successful enough to be picked up by Hollywood, which turned it into a passably entertaining film starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Thus ends the story.
Oldcastle, in search of “forgotten jewels” of the 20th century theatre, has selected The Grass is Greener as its June/July offering. Alas, at least in this presentation directed by OTC Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson, it is less a jewel than a yellowed rhinestone. It shows its age and the cast – with the exceptions of Richard Howe as Sellars, the Funny Butler (what a novel idea – not!), and Yvonne Perry as Hattie, the tipsy woman – fails to find any of its charm or romantic possibilities. Perry and Howe’s characters are peripheral to the romantic triangle and exist solely to Say Funny Things because no one else on stage is doing or saying anything remotely interesting.
This play is very, very British and never made the transition to Broadway. Nor did the film fare nearly as well in America as it did in Britain, although if you ever stumble across it on Turner Classic Movies on a rainy Sunday afternoon it is worth a watch. Obviously, the chief appeal of the original production was watching the happily married Williamses play at being tempted to part. In the BTF production of Candida the actors playing Rev. & Mrs. Morrell ARE really married. At Oldcastle Bill Tatum as Victor, the Earl of Rhyall and Melissa Hurst as Hillary, Countess Rhyall, are no relation and look like they just met at a cocktail party, not like they have been happily raising a family and managing a Stately Home that is slowly sliding into disrepair for the past decade.
In fact Hurst shows far more interest in Greg Skura’s Charles Delacro than he does in her at the outset. Unable to be tweedy and no-nonsense in that horsey Britsh way (think Princess Anne) Hurst merely wriggles around the stage coquettishly. She looks hot to trot and, not surprisingly, the divorced Charles wants to take her out for a turn.
Hurst is not helped by appallingly bad costuming by Patti Brundage. It is not of the period (the play is set in 1958) and it is not appropriate for a lady of Hillary’s age or social standing. When we first see her she claims to have been picking mushrooms – a cash crop the couple grows to augment the income they get from allowing tours of their estate (God forbid either of them should get a JOB!) – and yet she is wearing a satin brocade jacket over a pair of spandex capris. Spandex hadn’t been invented in 1959, and even if it had a 30-something Countess and mother of two would hardly have been seen in it, picking mushrooms or otherwise.
In the second act Hurst and Perry are stuffed into unflattering evening gowns, both of which were originally intended to show off their wearers’ cleavage but Brundage has wedged bits of lace in to the offending crevices. The piece selected to modify Perry’s gown looks painfully stiff and sticks out from the bosom at a most peculiar angle.
The men’s costumes merely look rented.
Perry manages to be witty and pretty – by far the best thing on the stage since Howe’s time there is very limited. Mostly we have to watch Tatum and Skura pretend to be jealous rivals for Hurst’s obviously easy affections. Their bad British accents bounce off of Skura’s bad Texas twang. For a comedy there are precious few laughs.
At least Carl Sprague has designed an attractive set, although why there wasn’t money in the budget for a real bell pull and an associated sound effect I don’t know.
Oldcastle needs to up the ante. It is not enough to select a show that no one else is doing, it needs to be a show worth doing, and worth spending time, ticket money, and ever increasing gas prices to attend. It is not enough to have Equity actors, they need to be suited to their roles. And there is no excuse for shabby costumes – there is always something at the thrift shop or in the back of somebody’s closet that can be made over or a piece that can be borrowed or rented from another theatre or a costume shop.
The Grass is Greener ran the exact same amount of time as Candida – two hours with one intermission – but the former seemed interminable while the latter just zipped by. Despite the fact that it is all about adultery, which Candida isn’t, there is nothing in this play to prevent you from bringing the children – except the fact that they will be bored to tears.
The Grass Is Greener produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through July 6 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008