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Victory Gardens Theater

It’s not that the show’s worthless. It isn’t. John Logan’s a talented, maybe even a very talented, writer who’s been teamed here with a solid director and something akin to a Chicago dream cast. His script’s smart–funny when it wants to be, assured to the point of cockiness. And its basic vision of pre-World War II England as an impotent society–grown too soft and self-absorbed to recognize, much less confront, Hitler’s evil–seems especially apt just now, when Western governments are busy telling themselves that Salman Rushdie is, like Czechoslovakia in ’38, a small price to pay for peace in our time.

No, Music From a Locked Room is far from worthless. But it comes across as an empty exercise anyway, because all its virtues are wasted on Logan’s oddly ingenuous attempt to make it act and sound like a collection of best-loved licks from every high-society play, movie, or New Yorker cartoon written during the first third of the 20th century.

Set–as you might’ve guessed–in a wealthy English couple’s in-town flat, and unfolding–as you might’ve known–during the course of a small black-tie dinner party, Music From a Locked Room signals its imitative intentions right from the top of the first act, as a blandly servile butler ushers the cheerfully dissolute Blaire Ford-Whyte into the drawing room, where he’s greeted by the charming-but-vague Clinton Champion. Blaire and Clinton noodle a little Gershwin on the piano, exchange some banter about “breeding,” and generally comport themselves like refugees from some lost but sneakingly familiar Noel Coward comedy.

They’re joined by the Rollingtons, a bluff old banker and his love-starved wife; by Sondra Lancaster, the sweet, serious young woman invited along to be paired with and joshingly abused by Blaire; and by Dolores–the loving, charming, giving, dutiful, absolutely marvelous, and rather dull wife with whom Clinton just can’t quite be comfortable. Also invited is Clinton’s former lover, Amelia: an aesthete turned anti-Franco guerrilla who comes bounding in–with her handsome Spanish comrade in tow, no less–just like the Polish lady acrobat in George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance.

Amelia’s arrival allows Logan to start in on his big issues, both macro- and microcosmic. On the macro side, there’s the spread of fascism and everyone’s dread of the coming war; on the micro side, Clinton’s dilettantish refusal to commit himself either to domesticity with Dolores or adventure with Amelia. Obviously, these matters can’t be handled very seriously within the context of Coward’s fey pre-World War II style, so Logan turns away from that model, only to take up another: a Maugham melodrama. A humid parfum de Leslie Howard hangs over the last half of Music From a Locked Room.

Logan may have intended all this as homage to a particular time and style. Indeed, he’s got Elyot Chase–the male lead character from Coward’s Private Lives–listed as an understudy in the program. But the actual result isn’t homage. It’s parody. Blaire’s bons mots parody Cowardian wit. Clinton’s indecisiveness parodies aristocratic languor. Amelia’s heroism (she sold her camera, she says, to buy medicine for sickly Spanish Loyalists) parodies Shaw’s new woman–along with such actual new women as Amelia Earhart, Margaret Bourke-White, and La Pasionaria–while Dolores’s goodness parodies the English stiff-upper-lip Madonna. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dolores again, in the wartime sequel to Music From a Locked Room, parodying Mrs. Miniver.

Dennis Zacek’s sentimental, anachronistic direction tends to emphasize Logan’s failures. Though he’s elicited gorgeously appropriate set and costume designs from James Dardenne and Kerry Fleming respectively, and though he maintains a smooth pace while throwing in some awfully nice musical interludes (the chance to hear no less than 16 classic show tunes–as well as a tango–from the 30s may be considered reason enough to ignore all objections and see the show), Zacek’s blubbery approach to those final passages of melodrama is all wrong. There’s entirely too much weeping and confessing going on here. I don’t care how stressed out Clinton and Blaire are, I can’t imagine them violating their sense of etiquette–not to mention their sense of themselves–so completely that the one could blurt out his innermost secrets and the other could burst out crying at a dinner party. I can’t imagine it even though I’ve seen it.

Zacek’s simplistic–one might say parodistic–reading of Logan’s characters seems especially disappointing when you consider the talent he’s hanging it on. Linda Emond–an exquisite actress on whom I have a deep (though wholly professional) crush–is reduced to weird Cheryl Tiegs moves here, suggesting Amelia’s free spirit by tossing her head back and forth. The gifted Denis O’Hare is encouraged to emote himself out of a well-constructed believability as Blaire; so is Patrick Clear, as Clinton. And though Deanna Dunagan imparts great dignity to the potentially abject Dolores, the character might’ve been a whole lot more interesting if Dunagan had been coached toward making her just a little less noble.

It’s all too bad. I have the greatest respect for John Logan. From the taut Hauptman through the egregious Snow to this play, he’s consistently challenged himself, always experimenting with new–or interestingly old–strategies and styles in his attempt to stage historical material. Music From a Locked Room was his experiment with certain British modes. I want to see him give us the Logan mode next.