French Twists


I didn’t realize how trapped Broadway had been making me feel all year until the curtain went up on Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon and I found myself in a place that wasn’t London, Ireland, the deconstructed past, or the gray placeless present. Instead, I was in the winter garden of a French château, in a pre­World War I past that had never really existed outside the high-comedy stage, where elegantly clad men and women engaged in preposterous intrigues while turning phrases that put their antics wittily into perspective.

Who wouldn’t delight in such a treat, after a year of Broadway’s unrelieved misery and ineptitude? “Why can we not always be young,” Hazlitt wrote, “and seeing The School for Scandal?” Different times, different touchstones: If you know any young people interested in theater, tell them to throw away all their contemporary English plays— except perhaps Stoppard’s Arcadia and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money— and go to see Ring Round the Moon. As with food, the French know how to do certain things right. Like English cooking, English dramaturgy offers no acceptable substitute.

Not that Anouilh’s version of French style is unwelcoming to foreigners. On the contrary, this 1947 work, the first source of his international reputation, is richly packed with the universals of comedy and fantasy. A Cinderella story turned ironically awry, it’s full of sly deadpan allusions to Italian and English classical comedy as well as France’s own tradition: Wilde, Shaw, Goldoni, Sheridan, and Shakespeare have scuttled through this winter garden, along with Molière and Beaumarchais. But Anouilh knew how to turn them all to his own French uses: When he translated The Importance of Being Earnest, he called the result Important d’être Aimé— the shift in emphasis that comes with the hero’s name change gets you from England to France faster than the Chunnel.

A wheelchair-bound grand lady, whose name means “of the dead seas,” gives a lavish ball to celebrate the engagement of her nephew, one of a pair of identical twins, to the daughter of a world-controlling tycoon. The other twin, in pure mischief, plots to wreck the engagement by inviting to the ball an innocent, unknown young beauty who will turn his brother’s head. Naturally, the pure mischief turns out to have purely self-interested motives, the young girl’s innocence goes with an unexpectedly strong mind, and the climactic to-do leaves everyone in this landscape of utter illusion with their illusions shattered— as a result of which, ironically, many of them get just what they really want. Hugo, the wicked twin, who believes only appearances matter, gets the bitterest disillusionment— that is, the happiest ending— of them all. (The joke’s on our illusions too, since both twins are played by the same actor: His happiness literally makes him vanish.)

Anouilh, who grouped his plays by type, called this one brillante, “glittering” or “sparkling.” And glitter it does, from the noonday opening, when we learn that hangdog Frederick has slept five nights running in the shrubbery under his fiancée’s window— warned that “the gardener plans to set wolf traps in the rhododendrons,” he replies that he’ll sleep in the azaleas— to the literal fireworks at the predawn end, which Madame Desmermortes’s guests mistake for the fire from heaven, till she explains, “That would be more than we deserve.” As the joke implies, you never have to look very far below the play’s rippling silks and epigrams to spot the dark undertow, a thoroughly pessimistic view of human evanescence. But that’s also the mitigating factor: Life on earth is so miserable that it entitles us to an exquisite pleasure now and then, especially one containing the added proviso that we rarely know what gives us pleasure anyway— and that, once found, it’s probably bad for us. In the play’s most memorable image, the impoverished Cinderella and the abstemious tycoon (who eats only noodles without butter or salt) tear up money together, listing as they toss it away all the things it buys about which they couldn’t care less.

This scene disquiets Americans, who, as Robert Brustein wrote in a related context, “don’t care to see their money stroked in public.” All the more reason, then, to be grateful that Lincoln Center Theater has revived the piece so unflinchingly. There would be more joy if they’d revived it unfussily as well, but in 1999, you have to be thankful for small favors. Christopher Fry’s old translation is a little swirly compared to Anouilh’s spiky clarity— the original title is simply Invitation to the Castle— but imagine the body blows the newer, more criminal, style of British translation would have inflicted. The flaws in Gerald Gutierrez’s production are old-style, i.e., less painful, flaws, and its virtues include three first-rate performances. Two, expectably, are by actors who began in the era of Anouilh’s dominance, and know the style from inside: Marian Seldes as the grand lady and Fritz Weaver as the tycoon. The third, a delicious surprise in a role usually viewed as burdensome at best, is Frances Conroy, who magically makes the lady’s drudging companion the heroine of a comedy entirely her own.

Now if only the lovers were as romantically appealing as this eccentric trio. But Gutierrez has apparently been too wrapped up in their physical antics to give much thought to their emotional life. Toby Stephens, busily differentiating the twins, almost forgets to fall in love twice over. Of the others, only Gretchen Egolf, as the bait in Hugo’s trap, has a sense of romance and repose to match her beauty— until her two big scenes, in which she yells and yowls like any modern teen. Am I alone in thinking that Cinderella, at the ball, never yowled? I also suspect that few French winter gardens, in 1912, had asymmetrical staircases on which tangos were danced. But all this is far from the main point, which is that this author’s name is pronounced ah-NOO-yuh, while almost everything else on Broadway now is pronounced “ennui.”

Off-Broadway there’s no ennui, just a certain degree of confusion, engendered by John Guare’s Lake Hollywood, a play as eccentrically built as the schemes of Ring Round the Moon‘s characters. Its second half, allegedly set in “the present,” began 33 years ago as a one-act called Something I’ll Tell You Tuesday. The first act, written more recently, is a prequel set in 1940, in which the early play’s old couple, a Manhattan building super and his wife, appear as a young pair, out to meet her horrific family in New Hampshire; the actors playing Act One’s young couple reappear in Act Two as the old couple’s daughter and son-in-law.

Is everything perfectly unclear? Don’t worry about it. As so often with Guare in his more-capricious moods, the structure isn’t the point; the two acts are excuses for each other that barely make sense together. (It’s impossible, for instance, to imagine the young man we see in 1940 living through the postwar boom to end up as a building super in the 1990s.) The first piece is farcical, with eerie overtones; the second is wistful, with a sardonic edge. Both are wonderfully wordsmithed: The lines fall in typically Guare-ian loops and whorls, the improbabilities pile up till some unexpected chime of reality calls them to a halt. The directors, Doug Hughes and Itamar Kubovy, keep a game cast scampering busily through the dottiness, taking a somber moment every so often as if they wanted to be sure you knew this was art. I’d advise disregarding these public service announcements; let the foolery wash over you and you’ll have a good time. You may even discover some point to the enterprise. For me its chief value, beyond ear-tickling, rests in the chance it gives Kate Burton and Betty Miller, as the heroine young and old. People talk about the “core of feeling” in a play; this one has a core of heartfelt acting, throbbing with life no matter how hollow the glittery script gets.

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