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Theatre in Review: The Lucky One (Mint Theater Company at Theatre Row)

Robert David Grant, Ari Brand. Photo: Richard Termine.

"Let's all talk about Gerald." So says Tabitha Farringdon, the in-house grande dame in A. A. Milne's drama, written in 1917 and first produced, on Broadway, in 1922. Tabitha's irony is lost on her relatives, all of whom live to dote on Gerald Farringdon, the younger generation's golden boy. Gerald is admired by his friends, worshipped by his parents -- and he even knicked his fiancée, Pamela, away from his much-less-beloved brother, Bob. (Or "poor Bob," as he is fairly universally known.) Gerald's tiniest achievement brings fresh parental accolades. His career in the Foreign Office is full of promise. He is an accomplished sportsman. And, of course, he is going to marry Pamela, who is both intelligent and a pleasure to behold -- the ideal helpmate for a man planning a brilliant career.

Looking on in resentment and shame is Bob, who has spent his life being the family afterthought. Unlike Gerald, who occupies the halls of power as if by divine right, Bob, in a rash moment, opted for a career in finance, a subject for which he has no particular aptitude. Worse, he threw his lot in with a shady partner who, having more or less bankrupted the firm, has fled to another country, leaving Bob to face the consequences, including criminal prosecution.

The sunlight of love and affection has fallen unevenly on Gerald and Bob, and The Lucky One often excavates their troubled relationship with a sharp scalpel. Bob, entering in the middle of yet another adoration-of-Gerald session, instantly causes the room to go quiet, laying in an undertone of tension before a single word is said. When Gerald, pressed, offers to examine the financials of Bob's ailing firm, only to keep putting off the appointment for a series of trivial social obligations, we see, in a single stroke, the injustice built into the family's dynamic. Bob, facing prison, begs Pamela (whom he loves) to postpone the wedding until he is free again ("I don't want Gerald's wife waiting for me when I come out," he says, bitterly), laying bare a desolation that can't be assuaged by the Farringdons' routine of cocktails, golf, and chipper conversation.

At the same time, it must be noted that Milne's script creaks as often as it crackles. Until Bob makes his first entrance, casting a dark cloud on an otherwise lovely country-house weekend, the expository conversation is so determinedly cheery and self-consciously witty that you might find your teeth aching, just a little. Milne is also notably vague about the collapse of Bob's business, treating it only as a McGuffin, rather than an opportunity to explore his character. A scene in which Gerald, aided by Henry, a family friend, tries to convince Bob that a stay in prison might be a lovely opportunity for getting some rest and catching up on his reading ("It's the chance of a lifetime to learn French!") provokes audience laughter of the wrong sort, so absurd is the proposition. The director, Jesse Marchese, is at a loss with passages such as these; anyone might be.

Still, Marchese gets three incisive performances from his leads. With his genial manner and Arrow Collar-ad looks -- his profile is sharp enough to open envelopes -- Robert David Grant's Gerald is a surprisingly complex characterization: Made complacent by too much unearned affection -- "These things don't happen," he counsels Bob, who is worried about scandal and arrest -- he is also more than a little trapped in the role life has assigned to him. Facing off with Tabitha, his one non-admirer among the Farringdons, he shyly remonstrates with her, quietly suggesting that some people are incapable of showing their hearts to others: This single line of dialogue, artfully thrown away by Grant, reveals the uncertainty behind Gerald's smile, the faint look of panic in his eyes at the prospect of love withheld. Greeted by a pair of lovers with the news of their engagement, he says, "It makes me quite envious to see you two young people together," infusing the line with his sad awareness that Pamela may be slipping from his grasp.

As Bob, Ari Brand exudes the lifelong awareness that others aren't naturally happy to see him, that his family accepts him largely for reasons of social convention. He exhibits an almost childlike panic at the idea that Pamela won't be there when his prison sentence is over. When the brothers finally square off, he proves to be an expert counterpuncher, even as the realization dawns that fraternal antipathy goes both ways. As Pamela, who unwittingly becomes the ultimate prize in the conflict between Gerald and Bob, Paton Ashbrook imbues what could have been a standard ingénue role with a probing intelligence. "You want so little. Bob wants so much," she tells Gerald, seemingly simple words that, in her delivery, expose the dilemma to which her affections are hostage.

The rest of the cast is more than capable at delivering their one-note characters, the standout being Cynthia Harris, casting a coolly analytical eye on the proceedings as Tabitha. As the requisite young lovers -- the golf-mad Thomas and Letty, the giggly object of his affection -- Andrew Fallaize and Mia Hutchinson-Shaw artfully provide comic relief. ("I don't think a man ought to propose with a niblick in his hand," she announces, trying to pry him away from his favorite subject.) Still, their giddy wooing is jarringly matched with the play's darker main theme.

The action unfolds on Vicki R. Davis' rather odd high-concept set, in which a pair of curved staircases lead to a second level that features an enormous photo of Gerald and Bob as boys. It just about passes muster for the first and third acts, which are set in the Farringdons' country home -- although they would surely dismiss such a display as vulgar -- but it makes no sense at all for Act II, which is set in a London hotel. Christian DeAngelis' otherwise solid lighting design turns overly blatant during the big Gerald-Bob confrontation, dimming the stage wash to pick out each brother and highlighting that damn picture. Milne's work wants more subtle treatment than this. Martha Hally's costumes nicely capture how nice families dressed just before England slipped into the era of flappers and Bright Young Things. Toby Algya's sound design includes a playlist of period tunes -- including "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" -- as well some pleasant piano études.

As always, one is grateful to the Mint for exhuming yet another rarity and exhibiting it in a professional production. For fans of theatre history, it is a highly collectible experience. For those who still think of Milne as largely a children's author, it is a salutary reminder that he was capable of exploring the darker corners of his very adult characters' hearts and minds. The playwright's sharp intelligence is on display, if inconsistently applied. -- David Barbour

(19 May 2017)

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