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Theatre in Review: You and I (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Aidan Eastwood, Elisabeth Preston, Timothy C. Goodwin. Photo: Anna Paola Pizzocaro.

For its new production, Metropolitan Playhouse, that dealer in theatrical rarities, has dug deeply into the vault of long-unseen works to find Philip Barry's debut play. Barry went on to become one of Broadway's most confident practitioners of high comedy, along with S. N. Behrman and Robert Sherwood; today, he is best known for Holiday (1928) and The Philadelphia Story (1939) -- and, probably, more for the films, both starring Katharine Hepburn, based on these plays. You and I, written not long after Barry had left George Pierce Baker's famous Harvard course in playwriting -- among its graduates were Behrman, Sidney Howard, and a young fellow named Eugene O'Neill -- is most definitely the work of a young, precocious -- but not fully formed -- talent. The distinctive wit that informs his most celebrated works was yet to gel. In other ways, however, Barry had already found his voice: Underneath the play's breezy, wisecracking tone is a world of regrets.

Roderick "Ricky" White, scion of a well-off Mount Kisco family, is about to sail for Paris, where he will spend three years studying architecture. Before his departure, he proposes to Veronica "Ronny" Duane, the girl next door. Ronny, who has good reasons for wanting to marry sooner rather than later -- not least to escape her unhappy home -- isn't having any of it. "It's awfully nice of you," she says, "but I couldn't wait three years for the Prince of Wales." In fact, she is more than a little resentful of his hard-to-resist attentions: "For the love of Pete, why couldn't you have held out just two weeks more? Then you'd have gone, and I'd have forgotten you. And that would have been all there was to it."

Thus, the impulsive-in-love Ricky takes a rash decision. He will throw over architecture school and go to work for his father's employer, a manufacturer of soap, toothpaste, and other necessities. Nancy, Ricky's mother, is horrified, and she urges Maitland, her husband and Ricky's father, to intervene. Nancy's opposition is rooted in her perception that history is repeating itself: Maitland was bent on a career as a painter until he married her and ended up penning memos about the marketing of toiletries. A couple of decades later, they are blissfully wed and well-cushioned with cash -- but Maitland is haunted by a persistent case of the might-have-beens.

When the parents' arguments fall on deaf ears, Barry flips the situation: If Ricky is determined to be a corporate cog, trading personal fulfillment for marriage and a steady salary, Maitland -- at Nancy's urging -- will, at long last, pursue his dream, throwing over his gilded cage to devote himself to painting. As it happens, these plans are ill advised on all counts and will lead to moments of reckoning for just about everyone.

Even in this early work, Barry's characters have a distinctly airy way with words: Ricky, talking in his mother's faintly overdramatic manner, says, "Nancy wanted to go on the stage once. She just eats a thing like this." Maitland notes that most of his fellow corporate slaves will "die of market reports" or "Babsonitis." And there's this mortifying exchange between Maitland and his old friend Geoff:

Maitland: Why-uh-I'm a manufacturer...
Geoff: What do you make?
Maitland: [this is painful]. Oh-uh-various things...
Geoff: But what's the -- piece de resistance, so to speak?
Maitland [very painful indeed]. Well -- uh -- I suppose one would say -- uh -- soap....
Geoff: Soap! God! -- You can get your teeth into soap!
Maitland [cynically]: You can into ours. It proclaims itself made of only the purest edible fats.

As such mild amusements suggest, Barry had yet to learn the fine art of writing lines that reveal character while landing big laughs. Then again, his gift for construction is fully in place here, as is his clear-eyed, yet sympathetic understanding of his characters. As Nancy notes when the going gets tough, "It's a little pathetic, you know, to find you're the sort of person whose conception of a real sacrifice consists in managing with two servants instead of five....it's rather disconcerting to reach down into your depths and touch bottom so quickly."

Under the skilled direction of Michael Hardart, a cast with a solid understanding of period style captures the complex notes -- mixing surface laughter and subterranean loss -- of Barry's style. Anchoring the production are two standout performances: Aidan Eastwood's Ricky is, for all the trappings of his upper-middle-class life, a true innocent, raised in a bubble of love that leaves him singularly unprepared to deal with the world and its disappointments. He is tops at making the best of his situation ("I'd no idea soap and toothpaste could hand such a thrill!"), but when it looks as if Ronny is going to terminate their engagement, his hurt and confusion are honestly heartbreaking. Equally fine is Elisabeth Preston as Nancy, she of the theatrical gestures and well-wrought speeches, whether firmly pushing Ricky onto the sofa to give him a good talking-to, quietly scheming to get one of Maitland's paintings sold, or intently scanning her loved ones, wondering if she might be the source of their unhappiness.

Also making nice contributions are Timothy C. Goodwin as Maitland, who unexpectedly finds himself mired in confusion at midlife; Rebbekah Vega-Romero as Ronny, who can't help falling in love with Ricky and who later tries to make the ultimate sacrifice; Meredith M. Sweeney as a maid who fears being asked to pose for a painting is an invitation to perdition; and Mac Brydon as Geoff, a globetrotting novelist who is his own worst critic.

Metropolitan Playhouse shows are not known for their production values, although Caitlynn Barrett's set transforms reasonably well from the family's library to an attic studio, and Christopher Weston's lighting certainly gets the job done. Sidney Fortner's costumes seem to go in and out of period, although the costume-party outfits for the third act are quite fine.

Not a brilliant work, You and I is nevertheless engaging throughout, and, in its ironic finale -- happy for one generation, dependent on the other's resignation -- it is surprisingly moving. It also stands on its own in its consideration of the soul-wearying effects of the American culture of business, a subject that seems to have fascinated most of his colleagues, including George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Elmer Rice, and Sophie Treadwell, among others, during the booming years of the Harding-Coolidge 1920s. And, even in this early work, Barry's philosophy is clearly stated: It's not the hand life deals you, it's the grace with which you play it. -- David Barbour

(18 September 2018)

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