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Theatre in Review: A Marriage Contract (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Mike Durkin, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: Ed Forti

You don't hear too much about Augustin Daly anymore, but in his day -- from 1866 to 1899 -- he was a commercial powerhouse on Broadway, right up there with Dion Boucicault and Clyde Fitch. If nothing else, he went down in theatre history for penning the melodrama Under the Gaslight, which actually features a villain who ties the heroine to the railroad tracks. Fortunately, A Marriage Contract, written in 1892 and produced under the original title A Test Case, is a surprisingly bracing comedy of manners, featuring a notably independent leading lady and a sharp eye for the petty irritations of small-town life. It's good enough to make one wonder what the rest of Daly's output is like.

The marriage contract of the title is struck by Robert Fleming, an architect and ornament of New York's nightlife, who has fallen in love with winsome, young Sabina Pognip. Sabina hails from a small town -- It bears the entirely dispiriting name of East Lemons -- and her father, Jessekiah, possesses her with an intensity that would make psychoanalysts sit up and take notice. At first, Jessekiah dismisses Robert's suit out of hand, then he makes an offer he is certain Robert can refuse: He may marry Sabina if he agrees to move with her to East Lemons, home of the family's tin plate factory. The deal is forever; Jessekiah even promises to become Robert's only client. To his surprise, Robert agrees, and, before you know it, the young man is rusticating -- and slowly going mad with boredom.

At the same time, the marriage of Robert's New York-based friends Juno and Ned Jessamine is headed straight for the rocks. Juno catches Ned, who claimed to be attending a viewing of old bindings at the Grolier Club, whooping it up at the Ball of the Jolly Frolickers. Fed up with Ned's repeated promises to settle down, Juno flees to East Lemons with her cousin, Nathaniel, who harbors tender feelings for her. She doesn't give a fig for Nathaniel; she has merely decided to give Ned a taste of his own medicine, and to enjoy herself while doing it. She hasn't counted on the fact that merely by showing up in East Lemons with a man and checking into a hotel, she has made herself an instant object of scandal.

In the past, I've found many productions at Metropolitan Playhouse to be sorely lacking in the acting department, but A Marriage Contract, as directed by Alex Roe, is well stocked with actors with a solid grasp of high-comedy style. Trevor St. John-Gilbert is a perfectly impudent Robert, whether beating Jessekiah at the deal-making game or wrestling with the tedium of life in a burg where a wild night consists of a poetry reading (Browning, of course) spiked refreshments with cider and ice cream. (He is advised to liven things up by going into politics: "You may get yourself elected pump inspector!") The actor is also adept at throwing himself onto a sofa at a second's notice to feign illness. Jennifer Reddish's Juno has a wicked glint in her eye, especially when explaining her plot to torment Ned; she also establishes herself in East Lemons as a devastating observer of the local scene. Juno is not the weak, wilting nineteenth-century stage heroine of the popular imagination: She a witty intriguer who will have her marriage on her own terms or not at all, and Reddish seems to be having a high old time playing her. (Taking the measure of the locals, she announces merrily, "I'm going in for East Lemons violently now.")

There are also solid contributions from Mike Durkin, moving from one burst of apoplexy to the next as Jessekiah; Tyler Kent as Nathaniel, the perpetual loser in love; Nick Giedris, suffering amusingly as Ned; J. M. McDonough as a town doctor who diagnoses Robert as suffering from "the Villaphobia -- or Rural Grip," urging him to bolt East Lemons and to take him along; and Dionna Eshleman and Teresa Kelsey as a pair of small-town cats, eager to soak up every available bit of gossip. ("Oh, you're so satirical," giggles Eshleman, eagerly if meaninglessly, every time Robert makes a pronouncement.)

A Marriage Contract isn't consistently dazzling, but it remains engaging, and Roe's direction has many clever touches, beginning with the opening, when the actors enter and disrupt the pre-show speech. I also enjoyed the Act II opener, when the lights come up on Jessekiah, Robert, and Sabina all struggling to stay awake at six in the evening. The company still has work to do, however, in terms of production values, all of which are far beneath the level of the performers, and all of which are crucial for realizing the style of plays such as this. Based on this performance, I'm starting to think Metropolitan Playhouse is headed in the right direction. -- David Barbour

(27 February 2018)

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