Harriet Harris doesn’t exactly speak her lines in Old Acquaintance. Instead, they seem to escape from her mouth, skittering or leaping to one side of the stage or the other while she looks after them in perplexity, wondering who could possibly have released such phrases into the air. Harris’s performance is wonderful, one of the astonishments of our age, a truly classic piece of stage outrageousness; the trouble with it is that it’s a performance. What it has to do with the characters and story of John Van Druten’s 1940 play, or with the other actors onstage in Michael Wilson’s coolly smart production, remains an open question from beginning to end.
Harris and Margaret Colin play rival authors of a certain age who are also best friends, having supposedly grown up together in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It’s entirely possible to believe that Colin’s Kit Markham—trim, terse, stylish, and sardonically self-aware—grew up in such a place and now lives a mildly bohemian life in a skylighted Washington Square duplex, turning out a somewhat cerebral novel every few years that gets prestigious reviews and sells a few thousand copies. It’s entirely possible to believe that her Kit has commenced an affair with a man 10 years younger, played by mop-haired Corey Stoll with an engaging grin and an angular lope. It’s equally possible to believe that she’s idolized by her best buddy’s teenage daughter, Deirdre, whom the appealing Diane Davis embodies with a strongly marked but never overdone case of teenage arrogance covering up an equally strong case of teenage vulnerability, all tears and jitters. All these people and their interactions belong in the world that Van Druten’s script so carefully builds up, a world where everybody knows everybody, and where publishers’ parties—at which evening dress is mandatory—often end with the younger guests being swept off to El Morocco or the Stork.
It’s a glittering, diverting world, not entirely imaginary, and in many ways far more appealing than the glum, noisy, grunge-laden one we live in now. Alexander Dodge’s sets pay lavish tribute to it, making the reasonably sized stage of what, in Van Druten’s time, was the Selwyn Theatre look as gigantic as the Hippodrome. When Kit’s rival Millie, whose kitschy romantic novels sell millions of copies, takes a New York apartment, Dodge’s huge all-white interior, trimmed in gilt and crystal, suggests that Old Acquaintance is on the verge of being turned into a musical, with a fancy curving staircase upstage center that comes straight out of Mame. Even Kit’s “bohemian” interior, crammed to the gills with antique objects, evokes a Washington Square left over from Henry James’s time, not the one where John Reed and his pals climbed to the top of the arch to declare Greenwich Village an independent nation. Read the diaries of Dawn Powell, a novelist who actually lived the struggling Village writer’s life that Kit seems to float through so elegantly, and you get a somewhat starker picture than either Van Druten or Wilson’s production willingly paints.
But, of course, why should they paint the picture so starkly? The play is a light romance, meant as after-dinner entertainment for a time when tickets were cheap, runs were short, and dropping in to watch two favorite actresses romp through a quasi-catfight like this was part of that dressier yet less pressured New York. Not untruthful and not unfunny, it stands as an instance of a life we no longer lead. Whether such a play should, or can, be revived is a different matter. Despite all its truth, its humor, and its charm as an antique, maybe Old Acquaintance should be forgot and never brought to mind. It was a slight thing, and no more than a very slight success (170 performances) even in its own time; it made no more than a slight, mildly amusing movie, with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. People have passed a few hours pleasantly with it, but nobody’s life has ever been more than lightly enhanced by it. Van Druten, a solid craftsman rather than a genius to be rediscovered, wrote better as well as worse plays than this—and maybe the better ones would have been more worth reviving. One of the problems of life in New York these days is that the theaters with the biggest resources seem to have the vaguest artistic policies. The Roundabout has an artistic director who is, by his own admission, a money man (he has put the theater in a solid financial position) with no particular artistic grounding. In the past, theaters like this were run more purposively, and—though Old Acquaintance is charmingly done and quite enjoyable—with considerably better artistic results overall.
Which brings us back to Harriet Harris, as Kit’s rolling-in-it but still unhappy rival, Mildred Watson Drake. Millie’s conventionality is both her vice and her virtue, the secret of her success and the source of her misery. The original Millie was Peggy Wood, later the essence of comforting matronliness on TV and in the film version of The Sound of Music. Harris, in contrast, is the twittering essence of onstage eccentricity. If she and Colin both come from Harrisburg, there must be an alternative Harrisburg on Mars. Yet her excess gives what would otherwise be a modest stroll over familiar ground a charge of improbable vitality. It’s hard to say whether she’s wrecking Van Druten’s play or transfiguring it.