The Last of Mrs. Cheyney

Bailiwick Repertory

Fucking Our Fathers

Bailiwick Repertory

Working the room at a New Year’s party for London’s upper crust, British dramatist Frederick Lonsdale spotted a gentleman he despised walking in. The host, fearing that the occasion might be ruined if the playwright were tempted to start tossing the verbal darts that were his specialty, encouraged him to appease the object of his contempt. Lonsdale walked over to the man. “I wish you a happy New Year,” he announced graciously. “But only one.”

Like his predecessor Oscar Wilde and his contemporary Noel Coward, Lonsdale was a lifetime member of the too-clever-by-half club. Judging from this famous barb, there was little separation between his art and his life; he made a fortune writing scripts that packed eloquently dissipated aristocrats into well-appointed drawing rooms and let them have at one another. Nearly forgotten now, he had numerous London and New York hits during his heyday, perhaps the greatest of which was The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. It opened on Broadway on November 9, 1925, and ran for nearly 400 performances; in later years it was turned into a Hollywood feature film not once but three times: in 1929 starring Norma Shearer, 1937 starring Joan Crawford, and 1951 starring Greer Garson.

It’s easy to see the appeal of Lonsdale’s comedy. Accompanying his sometimes loopy wit (“To accuse a beautiful woman of being liked by one is suggestive that her underclothes are made of linoleum”) is a plot deliciously ridden with twists. Lady Cheyney, a widow newly arrived from Australia and desperate to enhance her social profile, invites a neurasthenic clump of muckety-mucks to her country home for an afternoon of music. (Out of earshot of his hostess, the personality-free Willie Wynton moans, “The first part of the concert is over. And if the second part isn’t better than the first, the garden will be strewn with bodies.”) As the aristocratic detritus drape themselves over Mrs. Cheyney’s furniture, hell-bent on exercising their God-given right to do nothing, it becomes clear that Cheyney has two potential suitors: aging, wealthy bore Lord Elton and young, waggish libertine Lord Dilling. Everyone else at the party merely coos over Mrs. Ebley’s spectacular pearls.

Cheyney, it seems, eyes those pearls with particular interest. By the end of the first act, when her guests have left, we know two things: she and Dilling have fallen for each other, and her aristocratic pose is just that. Alone with her ersatz servants–in fact small-time jewel thieves–she admits that their scheme to ingratiate themselves with Mrs. Ebley for the sole purpose of stealing her pearls has hit a snag: Cheyney likes the swells. As she exclaims with quintessential Lonsdalian understatement: “The idea of persuading perfectly charming people into inviting you into their house for the purpose of robbing them isn’t pleasing me at all!”

The first act sails along on its own scintillating hot air. And director James Pelton certainly knows how to maintain a brisk pace. But he can’t seem to make sense of the action or to articulate the comedy. Moreover, his cast is stranded on Craig Choma’s inexcusably unplayable set–a room devoid of useful furniture save for a round padded bench plunked center stage, where everyone clusters like hair caught in a drain trap. Worse, they chatter indiscriminately. Lonsdale’s flood of wit becomes a wash, and his characters remain indistinct. Even the line about linoleum underpants falls with a thud. This is a play that requires some nuance, and it feels as though the cast needs another week of rehearsals to find the few dozen levels in Lonsdale’s script that might help bring motives and relationships into focus.

It seems certain this Mrs. Cheyney is headed for disaster. But a miraculous recovery takes shape in the second act of three. The same knot of blue bloods assembles in Mrs. Ebley’s slightly different room (where Choma has graciously supplied a few chairs)–but somehow the intermission’s ten minutes have given most of the characters dimension. From Nigel Patterson’s vapid Wynton to Elise Kauzlaric’s chirpy Joan to Jan Sodaro’s anxiety-ridden Mrs. Ebley, the stage is suddenly full of easily distinguished, detailed characters caught up in the giddy fun of watching the antiromantic Dilling pitch the aloof Mrs. Cheyney. Only Robert Kaercher as Dilling and Sara Walsh as Cheyney seem stuck in act-one indeterminacy, approaching nearly every moment with an unmodulated flippancy that does much to undermine the play’s stakes. It doesn’t help that costume designer Brooke M. Schaffner puts Walsh in a full-length gown the same shade of plum as the walls, rendering her nearly invisible. Even when Dilling discovers Cheyney’s true identity and offers an amorous deal meant to keep her out of prison–a scene with real undercurrents of violence–Kaercher and Walsh proceed with the same flirtatious lightness.

But after the second intermission, nearly every problem is solved. The final act is as well crafted and human as anything Bailiwick has produced in its 20-year history. Suddenly the stage is bursting with life and wit, and one wonders why Lonsdale’s plays have faded into obscurity. It’s hard to believe that this third act is the creation of the same performers and director who flailed so unsuccessfully in the first. Perhaps with a bit of retrofitting, Pelton and company can begin the play on firmer footing.

In Fucking Our Fathers, the first production in Bailiwick’s Pride 2002 series, playwright Scott Capurro indulges in a more contemporary brand of parlor chatter: gay dish. The opening scene of this hour-long oddity is set in a San Francisco leather bar where best friends John and Danny are cruising for hot daddies while trash-talking themselves blue in the face. Their chatter has a certain salacious allure, but it’s a far cry from Lonsdale’s dazzle. “Tom Cruise is hot,” Danny says. “He better be,” John retorts. “His last name is ‘Cruise.'” Ba dum ching.

For reasons known only to him, Capurro keeps his characters in diapers–or less–throughout the evening. But he’s out to take a bigger bite of gay life than most writers penning thinly veiled nudie revues: he wants to get at the psychological underpinnings of the daddy fetish. Both John and Danny stalk older men, yet neither finds contentment with them. Unfortunately Capurro can’t probe the issue very deeply in an hour’s worth of sketchlike material (the piece was created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe). The best he can do is have Danny recoil repeatedly when he realizes he’s attracted to a guy who reminds him of his stepfather.

Still, Capurro packs enough smart, scandalous comedy into the show to prove he’s a writer worth watching. He’s even better as an actor: playing John, he turns a poker face into pure impish seduction. As Danny, John Cardone seems comparatively green, and at times he’s embarrassingly self-conscious sporting a diaper. But he captures his character’s naivete. Overall the show is a step above similar fare–which will mean little to those lacking a taste for queer innuendo and flaccid penises.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rusty Hernandez.