'The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue' – Not as Smart as They Could Be

"The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue"

Written by David Grimm; directed by Michael Wilson; scenic design by Tony Straiges; costume design by Martin Pakledinaz; lighting design by Rui Rita; original music and sound design by John Gromada; choreographer, Hope Clarke; voice and dialect coach, Deborah Dallas Cooney; wigs by Paul Huntley

Cast in order of appearance:

Betty, Nicole Lowrance

Ramona, Nancy Bell

Dicky Mayhew, Zach Shaffer

Aunt Sylvia, Pamela Payton-Wright

Uncle Rupert, Nafe Katter

Henry Crystal, Tom Bloom

Magda, Natalie Brown

Phyllis Crystal, Annalee Jefferies

Upton Gabitt, David Greenspan

T.S. Baines, Bill Kux

Judge Arbogast, Bill Kux

Servants, Elizabeth Capinera, Dan Whelton

Performances: Now through October 2

Box Office: 860-527-5151 or www.hartfordstage.org

Ah, me. It's always a dicey proposition to adapt the potentially politically incorrect works of centuries-old playwrights like Shakespeare, Jonson and Molière for contemporary audiences. In "Kiss Me, Kate," based on "The Taming of the Shrew," there's that pesky wooing scene and Lilli/Kate's submission to Fred/Petruchio to navigate. In Larry Gelbart's take on "Volpone," the burlesque-style "Sly Fox," the challenge is to make an attempted rape and the utter stereotyping of women as either Madonna or whore seem funny.

Now, thanks to the Hartford Stage and playwright David Grimm, we have another adaptation of a classic play currently making its world premiere in Connecticut. Set in Depression-era New York City in a spoiled upper class family's lavish penthouse, "The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue" takes a stab at updating Molière's decidedly anti-feminist and anti-intellectual verse comedy, "Les Femmes Savantes." Unfortunately, Grimm's heavy-handed translation is as mean-spirited toward his three central characters as Molière's original script was to his. Thus a promising opportunity for high comedy has been squandered. Instead of biting satire that exposes the hypocrisies and pretensions of the nouveau riche by undoing farcically drawn caricatures with their own ludicrous words and ideas, we get a screwball comedy wannabe that is as obvious and at times offensive as the play from which it was derived.

"The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue" are the mother (Phyllis), aunt (Sylvia) and older sister (Ramona) of the scatter-brained but lovable innocent, Betty Crystal. While the three sophisticates swoon over the self-absorbed poet and leech Upton Gabbitt and give twisted lip service to the plight of the poor as they eat tea sandwiches and sip champagne, Betty pines for a simple, uncomplicated life with her suitor, the hard-working voice of the common man, Dicky Mayhew. Betty's father, Henry, and uncle Rupert, meanwhile, conspire to make sure that Betty weds her beloved and not the pretentious pseudo-intellectual Gabbitt that the "learned" trio endorses. The predictable battle of the sexes ensues, with Phyllis and Henry squaring off to see who gains ultimate control as head of the Crystal household.

This mix of socio-economic commentary and sexual comeuppance may have worked in the 1930s, when America was clamoring for a more even distribution of wealth and women were just beginning to challenge male authority by gaining an education and entering the workforce. In fact, it did work – quite successfully – in classic madcap films such as "My Man Godfrey" (from which Grimm and director Michael Wilson seem to have borrowed shamelessly). "Learned Ladies" might even still work today if Grimm's period script were written with enough sophistication and wit to make fun of the main characters without insulting them – but that is not the case. With his sing-song verse and frequently forced, even crude, rhymes, Grimm defines heroes and villains in black and white. His simplistic message seems to be that hard work and common sense are good, all intellectual pursuits are bad, and women should stay where they belong – in the kitchen, bedroom and nursery. Hail, Dicky and Betty and their traditional family values.

The (hopefully unintentional) banality that Grimm has written into "The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue" is overcome almost magically by superb performances from the entire cast. As Phyllis, the domineering shrew who thinks that poetry about poor people is artistic and noble, Annalee Jefferies shows great comic flair. She delivers some of the most unsympathetic lines in the play yet manages to get major laughs. Pamela Payton-Wright as her off-center sister-in-law Sylvia delights with her romantic delusions and sweeping entrances and exits. The dueling sisters Ramona and Betty are a study in contrasts. Nancy Bell as the elder has the elegance, poise and masked vulnerability of a coltish Katharine Hepburn while the younger Nicole Lowrance is a giggling, wheezing bundle of nervous energy not unlike a daffy Carole Lombard. Rounding out the distaff side, Natalie Brown gives us a formidable trusty servant Magda, whose major speech is a verbal if not literal smack on the bottom to uppity women everywhere.

The men also convey a high style that fixes their characters firmly in the period. Tom Bloom as Henry Crystal, the nonplussed husband and "king of baked beans," moves from spineless cuckold to tentative warrior with a likable charm and self-effacing chagrin. As his seemingly rakish brother Rupert, Nafe Katter is both jovial and devilishly sly. David Greenspan as the narcissistic and parasitic Upton Gabbitt is at turns lecherous, smarmy, theatrical and marvelously manic. Zach Shaffer as the salt of the earth hero Dicky Mayhew is boyish and passionately assured of his love and convictions.

Tony Straiges has designed an exquisitely detailed art deco set of white, cream and frosted glass whose glossy black accents beautifully punctuate the 1930s urbane setting. Martin Pakledinaz's period costumes are equally sumptuous and fit each character's personality perfectly. Direction by Michael Wilson is smart, fluid, and multi-layered – much more so than the script itself. Lighting by Rui Rita is suitably bright and cheerful.

"The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue" could have been a wonderful satire relevant even today if Grimm had brought the same sense of levity and sophistication to his script that the actors do to their performances. Instead, this new work feels like a dusty relic, as out of date as the 1672 farce from which it was adapted. The learned ladies are not the ones who need to be taught a lesson here. Playwright, heal thyself.


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From This Author Jan Nargi