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Connecticut Theater

"The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue"
Hartford Stage

Who says there’s no class-consciousness in America, no sense of “entitlement”? In the amusing “The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue” at Hartford Stage, condescending rich women fool themselves that they’re truly concerned about the plight of the poor. Given the production’s slash-and-burn idiosyncrasies, however, they might also consider looking for flesh-and-blood characters.

David Grimm’s farcical riff on Molière’s 1672 satire (the French immortal’s next-to-last play before expiring on stage a year later in “The Imaginary Invalid”) updates the work to 1936. America is in the midst of the Great Depression which barely touches the deluded souls who live off Henry Crystal’s canned bean fortune.

Henry’s sister, Aunt Sylvia, is a hot-to-trot, over-the-hill beauty. Always on the prowl, she believes every man has his derby set just for her.

Wife Phyllis, a termagant with polished fingernails, fires the cook not for her lack of culinary skills but because she reads trashy movie magazines. Along with daughter Ramona, a statuesque snob in designer gowns, Phyllis and Sylvia imagine themselves the crème de la crème when it comes to smart conversation.

The object of their largesse is Upton Gabbitt, a phony intellectual who combines the worst traits of socialist writer Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis’ self-important Babbitt. John Steinbeck is also mentioned, forming a triumvirate of muckrakers who supposedly bleed for the downtrodden while counting their royalties.

When Gabbitt and another uppity writer, T. S. Baines (T. S. Eliot?), square off for a duel, instead of pistols at 20 paces, they tear pages from each other’s books. Flinging the written words at each other while issuing imprecations results in one of the evening’s highlights.

Meanwhile, the Crystals’ younger daughter, Betty, wants to marry the impoverished Dicky Mayhew who caps the proceedings by announcing “I’d rather stay stupid than act like I’m smart,” even though he delivers the play’s “message.” Mom has other ideas, however, angling for a match between Betty and the abhorrent Gabbitt. Since henpecked dad Henry prefers Dicky as Betty’s fiancé, the stage is set for a showdown.

The adaptors’s task could not have been easy and his rhymed couplets do not outshine Richard Wilbur’s definitive translation. Still, he’s filled his script with apt phrases, most of which translate nicely from Paris to New York.

Under Michael Wilson’s frantic direction, the breathless cast flings itself in and out of doors, onto hassocks and behind sofas. Wilson invents numerous acrobatic poses for the ladies: Sylvia wraps her gams around Dicky, the three harpies peer between Gabbitt’s legs or arrange themselves to sweetly denounce FDR and praise Hitler.

Zach Shaffer as Dicky, Tom Bloom as Henry and, at times, Nancy Bell as Ramona invest their characters with believability. The others are cartoonish: Nicole Lowrance’s squeaky Betty, Pamela Payton-Wright’s overwrought Sylvia and Annalee Jefferies’ uneasy combination of sense and sensibility. Natalie Brown has a nice bit as Magda, the put-upon cook, while David Greenspan, Bill Kux and Nafe Katter take their characters’ effeteness perhaps too far.

Tony Straiges’ white-and-black Art Deco set is stunning, as are Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Rui Rita’s creamy lighting. John Gromada’s music and sound design sets the 30s mood and choreographer Hope Clarke contributes a lively closing dance. But vocal and dialect coach Deborah Dallas Cooney might have been more careful in making sure these hoity-toity people do not pronounce “aunt” as if it referred to an insect.

-- David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 15, 2005

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