New York City Theater
American Airlines Theater
Plays come and go, but some things – like some friendships – last forever. So it is with “Old Acquaintance,” the 1940 John van Druten comedy being given an elegant revival by Roundabout Theater. Slight as it may seem to a modern audience, its underlying air of regret for what was and grasp of what is fills the theater with enough wit and urbanity to warrant its revival.
This should come as no surprise for those who know van Druten’s work. Largely forgotten as a name today, his plays live on and are often revived. His “I Am a Camera” which (despite critic Walter Kerr’s famous assessment: “Me no Leica”) served as the basis for the musical smash “Cabaret.” Besides such hits as “I Remember Mama,” “Bell, Book and Candle” and “The Voice of the Turtle” (the ninth longest-running Broadway play), van Druten wrote several underappreciated works, including two autobiographies.
In “Old Acquaintance,” van Druten pinpoints the vagaries of two dear friends. Though both write novels, Milly Drake’s are potboilers while Kit Markham’s are quality. Guess whose novels sell better. Kit lives in a book-cluttered Greenwich Village apartment, while Milly calls Pelham home. When Milly decides to move temporarily to New York, her flat is garishly furnished, matching her tawdry clothes.
Aside from giving set designer Alexander Dodge and costumer David C. Woolard opportunities to use splashy palettes, the clever designs exactly reflect both the character and style of the two women. They are rivals not just for public recognition but for the affection of Milly’s daughter Deirdre – Kit through sensible nurturing, Milly through flamboyant dominance. (“Me having all the advantages,” says Milly, “and you having all the fun.”)
The production is best enjoyed by time-tripping back to the forties with its constricted morality. It’s a time when people didn’t reveal their affairs (the unmarried Kit’s is with Rudd Kendall, a good ten years her junior). Although living temporarily with Kit, 19-year-old Deirdre hasn’t a clue as to what’s been going on beneath her nose. When she finds out, she tries to out-do her mentor.
It’s the kind of play where sniffling women have to be handed hankies by indulgent men. But van Druten, no prude, doesn’t shy away from titillating sophistication. Nor does he offer easy, obvious solutions in the various tugs-of-war between Kit and Milly, Kit and Rudd, Rudd and Deirdre.
Michael Wilson stages this lightweight charmer at breakneck speed while respecting van Druten’s very real sense of character, although some of the blocking is peculiar. Margaret Colin is warm, sympathetic and altogether winning as Kit. As Milly, Harriet Harris and her dancing curls act up a storm. Silly and bitchy, Harris, except when she overdoes the tippling and the tippy-toeing across the floor, is very funny.
Stephen Bogardus is smart as Milly’s former husband, Corey Stoll is an energetic Rudd and both Gordana Rashovich and Cynthia Darlow do well as the women’s servants. But Diana Davis’ Deirdre is annoying and unbelievable.
Sometimes a knockabout farce, sometimes a brittle boulevard comedy, “Old Acquaintance” answers the question of what was going on in people’s minds a year before World War II. The answer: love, sex and friendship. ‘Twas ever thus.
David A. Rosenberg
July 6, 2007