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Theatre in Review: End of Summer (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Andrew Bryce, Mary McNulty. Photo: Stephen Leong.

In his 1936 New York Times review of S. N. Behrman's End of Summer, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Mr. Behrman and Philip Moeller [the play's director] have collaborated so long that they know exactly how to make a drawing-room comedy ripple and tinkle across the stage." Such sounds are largely absent from the Metropolitan Playhouse revival, for a number of reasons -- the first of which, I submit, is the passage of time. "Comedy is the saving grace which makes life bearable," Behrman wrote near the end of his life; that may be, but the comedy to be found in End of Summer is of a peculiarly diluted sort, as is the veiled political commentary running through it. The play wants, more than anything, to cast a spell of civilized good humor, but its charm has faded with the years, so much so that at times it barely appears to be about anything at all.

In the service of comedy, Behrman has convened a pride of houseguests at a "cottage" -- really a posh summer house -- in Maine, "the masculine Riviera," as one of them notes. The place belongs to Leonie Frothingham, a flibbertigibbet of a divorcée who enjoys taking up people as projects. The guest list makes up a cross-section of the political and social cross-currents of 1936. They include Will Dexter, a young radical who, just out of college, is struggling to find a job in publishing; Will's father, an inventor who was fired after he came up with a method of making "high-speed steel" ("They decided that his discovery, if perfected and marketed, might increase the technological unemployment"); Boris, Count Mirsky, a displaced White Russian who is writing a biography of his father, a novelist with a distinct resemblance to Tolstoy; and Dr. Kenneth Rice, a psychoanalyst with social-climbing tendencies. Also on hand are Paula, Leonie's daughter and Will's girlfriend; Mrs. Wyler, Leonie's mother, who has fond memories of the day her husband discovered oil in their Ohio backyard; Sam, Leonie's ex-husband, who drops by often to provide color commentary on the changing social arrangements; and Dennis, Will's wisecracking colleague.

George Bernard Shaw himself couldn't have assembled a livelier gaggle of opposing points of view. But in this comedy of manners and politics, the former trumps the latter, and, viewed through the long lens of time, there is surprisingly little to laugh about. Seemingly anticipating Tom Wolfe, Leonie wonders, "Why can't radicals be chic? I saw a picture of Karl Marx the other day and he looks like one of those advertisements before your take something." Sneering at Kenneth's profession, Dennis says, "I have examined the racket with a microscopic patience and this I find to be true: at the top of the hierarchy is the Great Pan Sexualist of Vienna." Kenneth, who gave up medicine for head-shrinking, says, "It was a starveling occupation. But I gave up tonsillectomy for the soul. The poor have tonsils but only the rich have souls. My instinct was justified -- as you see." After three acts of everyone being this terribly, terribly clever, don't be surprised if a slight ache begins to develop in the area of your temples.

The conflict at the play's center has to do with a tangle of interlocking relationships. Will wants to marry Paula, but is painfully aware that once he has access to her money, he will lose his radical status. Paula is determined to be a good sport and join him on the barricades. As she points out, "Didn't I join you on that expedition to Kentucky to be treated by that sovereign state as an offensive foreigner? My back aches yet when I remember that terrible bus ride. Didn't I get my name in the papers picketing? Didn't I give up my holiday to go with you to the Chicago Peace Congress?" Meanwhile, Kenneth is busy charming Leonie but really has his eye on Paula, who, truth be told, is both fascinated and repelled by him.

Also, Will and Dennis have a publishing start-up in mind: "A national magazine for undergraduate America...Before the rift in our so-called system, college men were supposed to live exclusively in a world of ukuleles, football slogans, and petting-parties -- College Humor sort of thing. But it was never entirely true. Now it is less true than ever. This magazine -- if we can get it going -- would be a forum for intercollegiate thought. It would be the organ of critical youth as opposed -- to the other." With a high-minded business plan like that, you won't be surprised to hear that they're having trouble finding investors.

Across three acts of talk, talk, talk, not a great deal happens -- and when it does, sometimes you wish they would restart the conversation. A sequence in which Kenneth on the spot analyzes Count Mirsky, exposing the latter's deep-seated hatred for his father in five minutes flat, is ludicrously naïve. Most of the time, nothing is allowed to disturb the civilized surface. Will and Dennis' "radical" ideas are so vaguely defined that, for all one knows, they may peak at voting for Roosevelt. Kenneth is supposed to be a representative of fascism -- "Never has the opportunity for the individual career been so exalted, so infinite in its scope, so horizontal," he says. "House-painters and minor journalists become dictators of great nations. Imagine what a really clever man could do!" -- but, really, his greatest sin is being vulgar about his ambitions.

It's possible that End of Summer might work better if Leonie was presented as the play's foolish, touching -- and also exploitative -- center of the action, collecting people to distract herself from her own lack of purpose, unconsciously bending them to her will. This may have been the case in the original, when she was played by Ina Claire, one of the great high-comedy technicians of the day; such practitioners are thin on the ground in 2016, however, and it's nothing against Erin Beirnard that she doesn't capture the character's peculiar charms. Similarly, Kenneth was played by Osgood Perkins, one of the era's great character men (and father of Anthony), and I'm willing to bet that he exerted a sort of vulpine charm missing in Kelly Cooper's performance. Rather better are Andrew Bryce as Will, Mary McNulty as Paula, and Michael Hardart as Sam -- all of whom have a good grasp of period style -- but it can't be said that the director, Alexander Harrington, has managed to find a meaningful dramatic pattern amid the acres of talk.

If Cao Xuemei's set design is probably a little more rustic than the script calls for -- something tells me that the Frothingham family's idea of a cottage is more on the Newport scale -- it is nevertheless an appealing-looking assemblage of whitewashed wood walls and wicker furniture, backed by a striking drop depicting the Maine coast. Sidney Fortner's costumes are reasonably good, especially considering the number of characters and what I assume was the budget. Christopher Weston's lighting is solid. No sound designer is credited, although somebody has provided the preshow playlist of period pop tunes -- among them "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Anything Goes" -- and the classical piano passages that bridge the scene changes.

Behrman's catalogue is certainly worth further examination; a few years back, a Pearl Theatre Company revival of Biography revealed that it is an eminently playable piece, and there may well be other gems in little need of polishing. But in this production, anyway, End of Summer's charms prove to be elusive. Like some summer holidays, it is allowed to go on too long, leaving one itching to return to real life. -- David Barbour

(31 October 2016)

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