Nowadays, the name “Mrs. Fiske” means nothing except to those who recall it from one of George Sanders’s snarkier gag lines as the critic in the 1950 movie All About Eve (“You’re too short for that gesture. Besides, it went out with Mrs. Fiske”). We find it absurd, first of all, for an actress to have billed herself as “Mrs.” But a century ago, respectability was as necessary as talent to a woman in search of stage success with the moneyed audience. Then, as now, men paid for the tickets, but their wives chose which shows the couple would attend.
Mrs. Fiske’s situation helps clarify The New York Idea (Lortel Theatre), David Auburn’s new adaptation for the Atlantic Theater of the 1906 comedy, by Langdon Mitchell, which was one of her biggest successes. Mitchell, her house playwright, was married to the actress Marion Lea, who played the contrasting second female lead. Both ladies had done notable work in Ibsen plays, and an “Ibsenite” air of liberation, an impulse to challenge moral attitudes both new and traditional, hangs over Mitchell’s light, prankish marital comedy.
So does a breezy sense of American-ness. Unlike Europe’s often heavily solemn Ibsen proponents, Mrs. Fiske and her team had a particular knack for saucy satirical comedy. She had made a memorable Becky Sharp in Mitchell’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, his first big success for her; in later life, she scored a pair of high-contrast triumphs playing Ibsen’s Mrs. Alving and Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop. The brash, bantering manner that devolved into American wisecrack comedy really began life in her generation, with plays like The New York Idea.
Auburn’s revision follows the basic pattern of Mitchell’s original, a pentagonal conundrum involving two recently divorced couples. Despite the disapproval of his family elders, Phillimore (Michael Countryman), a stuffy judge with a penchant for lively, strong-minded women, is about to marry Cynthia Karslake (Jaime Ray Newman), a “sporty” race-horse-loving gal whose impulsiveness has driven her ex-spouse, John (Jeremy Shamos), to fiscal near-ruin—and, she fears, into the seductive arms of Vida (Francesca Faridany), Phillimore’s vampish ex-wife. To complicate matters, both ladies find themselves attracted to a visiting English gent (Rick Holmes) with a lordly estate and an eye for American beauty. In duly antic course, one couple reunites and one stays divorced, while both the old idea of a socially “suitable” marriage and the superficial new “New York idea” (“Marry for a whim and leave the rest to the divorce court”) get thoroughly kicked around.
Auburn’s streamlining hasn’t wrecked Mitchell’s play, but also hasn’t helped it overmuch. He has cleared away some superfluous characters and a certain amount of excess Gilded Age verbiage, but he has also often softened or cheapened the play’s tone rather than sharpening its focus. Though rarely violating the period, he’s not sufficiently at ease there to perceive which elements the era’s own denizens would class as old-hat; some of his inventions, like a smart-alecky French maid who dispenses advice to the lovelorn, belong to exactly the type of stale Victorian comedy Mitchell aimed to supplant.
Still, Auburn’s recension would most likely play well enough in different directorial hands. Mark Brokaw’s production, regrettably, has all the breeziness of a wooden mallet trying to tenderize a piece of yesterday’s overlooked steak. Many, many moments that need to be tossed off lightly instead fall with a loud, blunt thud, and the principal thudder is Newman, who drives down the center line of her every scene, oblivious to everything and everyone around her. Even she, you’d think, might respond to the charm of Allen Moyer’s sets (including a “Sargent portrait” that actually looks like one) or the sly extravagance of Michael Krass’s costumes, but no such luck. Shamos and Faridany display, erratically, the sparkle the text pleads for, and Holmes makes a festive meal of his role, but the overall atmosphere is as heavy as this winter’s snowfall. I’m often accused, wrongly, of saying that theater was better when I was young. Well, when I was young, this play was performed at BAM, in its original text, with Blythe Danner, Rene Auberjonois, Rosemary Harris, and Stephen Collins in the leads. Maybe I should start insisting that things were better back then.