Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Not So Bright 'Idea'


Countryman and Newman in The New York Idea (photo by Ari Mintz)
The New York Idea
Adapted by David Auburn

From the original by Langdon Mitchell
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Starring Patricia Conolly, Michael Countryman, Francesca Faridany, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann, Rick Holmes, John Keating, Peter Maloney, Jaime Ray Newman, Patricia O'Connell, Jeremy Shamos, Joey Slotnick, Tom Patrick Stephens

January 7-February 26, 2011
Atlantic Theater Company @ the Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher Street

With the mildly amusing The New York Idea, playwright David Auburn (Proof) has put his own stamp on a century-old drawing-room comedy by Langdon Mitchell. For all its jabs at turn-of-the-20th-century Manhattan high-society, Auburn’s satirical scalpel doesn’t always sharpen the humor that Mitchell’s era has grown in distance from ours.

Cynthia Karslake, the play’s free-spirited 25-year-old heroine, is marrying distinguished middle-aged judge Philip Philimore, whose family is scandalized that this divorcee (her marriage to John Karslake ended after seven months) has frivolous interests like horses and horse racing that are incompatible with Philip’s seriousness.

Indeed, Cynthia refuses to keep to her place in a society that frowns upon independent women. Even though she says she’s looking for stability in her life, that very idea goes against her nature. Both Philip’s and Cynthia’s exes are still around, as is the incorrigible British bachelor, Sir Wilfred Cates-Darby, whose own affection for Cynthia causes her to reconsider the idea of going through with her wedding.

Funny and fizzy but distinctly dated, The New York Idea may have appealed to Auburn thanks to solid farcical elements and lively characters that would need but a slight touch-up to bring them into the 21st century. Mitchell’s original does churn out laughs effectively, but Auburn has smartly changed his sentimental ending and streamlined the action by sensibly paring down the number of characters.

But why, for example, change Philip’s ex Vida’s blowsy British maid to a flirty French one who begs for nothing but cheap laughs? And why has Mitchell’s Phillimore family lost one of its L’s? Much of the original flavorful dialogue remains, but Auburn’s tightening up of it has mixed results. Then there’s Mark Brokaw’s sluggish staging, which keeps interrupting the play’s would-be comic rhythms. A door-slamming farce this ain’t, but more urgency would help things considerably.

Brokaw has better luck with his cast. In her New York stage debut, Jaime Ray Newman plays Cynthia in an irresistibly unconstrained performance. Tall and coltish like a young Julia Roberts or Amanda Peet—though more commanding onstage than either of those stars—Newman might well be too modern for the period, but that only makes Cynthia stick out even more, and it fits with Auburn’s modernizing mandate.

Michael Countryman is a properly dignified Philip and Jeremy Shamos a perfectly—and humorously—frivolous John. Francesca Faridany (Vida) and Rick Holmes (Sir Wilfred) make good comic foils, as do the delightful trio of Patricia Connolly, Peter Maloney and Patricia O’Connell as the Philimore family’s elder statesman and women.

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