City Lit Theater Company

at Live Bait Theater

Like T.S. Eliot, Henry James was American only by birth, not by temperament. Yet only after leaving this country to spend the rest of his life in Europe did James discover–by the process of elimination–the qualities that make someone American (much as Joyce found Ireland only by leaving Dublin and Chagall re-created Russia from distant Paris).

Originally a yearlong serialization in the Atlantic Monthly, James’s third novel, The American (1877), is unmistakably Jamesian. Written in Paris by the 34-year-old expatriate–who was living a hand-to-mouth existence and trying to gain entree into the beau monde–the novel reflects James’s frustration. It contrasts a robustly self-made and curiously innocent Californian with various corrupt and snobbish aristos. Yet from among them, Christopher Newman, our American in Paris, hopes to choose a wife.

Very much on the make (an American phrase James would have savored), Newman–whose name tells all–is smugly certain that his homeland is “the greatest country in the world,” that Americans “could put all Europe in their breeches pocket,” and that “Europe was made for him, and not he for Europe.” As if to confirm his confidence, he’s told, “You are the great Western Barbarian stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing a while at this poor effete Old World and then swooping down on it.” Buoyant with dollars and the courage of his ignorance, this ugly American feels “there must be a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument.” His wife is to be “the best article in the market.”

In an impassive 17th-century mansion in the Faubourg Saint-Germain Newman finds his prize possession an unmerry widow named Claire de Cintre. Half French, half English, Claire has been ordered into one unhappy marriage and fears a second sale, but very gradually she warms to this ardent American. With typical naivete, Newman underestimates her family’s arrogance (it’s only his money that makes them put up with him at all), but does manage to strike up a friendship with Claire’s charming and ineffectual brother Valentin. Sadly, under Newman’s influence Valentin succumbs to a fatal relationship with a mercenary painter.

When Valentin remarks about his 800-year-old lineage, “Old trees have crooked branches,” he clearly has his mother–Newman’s nemesis–in mind. The Marquise de Bellegarde is a cruel dowager with a Napoleonic will (psychologically, she’s a direct descendant of Dangerous Liaisons’s Madame de Merteuil). Her chief accomplice is her eldest son, Urbain, a brittle prig who promises Newman he will consent to the betrothal (including a lavish engagement party), then coldly breaks his word. The Bellegardes, it seems, cannot be allied to a manufacturer of washtubs. With a possessiveness that easily exceeds Newman’s, the tough old dragon forces weak-minded, obedient Claire to give up marriage and immure herself in a Carmelite convent.

Newman is enraged at losing his lovely investment to Bellegarde deceit, but when he later comes across evidence of a covered-up murder that implicates the old marquise and Urbain, he refuses to use it for revenge. Rising above the empty elitism of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the American proves who the true nobleman is.

James was well aware that by refusing to allow the marriage he was bound to disappoint his readers. But he knew that Newman and Claire “would have been an impossible couple” (among other things, they would never have agreed on a place to live). There is also a deeper reason Newman doesn’t marry; according to James scholar Leon Edel, James’s homosexuality ruled out the possibility of marriage and he “found it genuinely difficult to offer it to his heroes.” It is, after all, Newman’s isolation that defines him as much as anything.

In 1891, James turned the novel into a play. The venture failed, in part because James gave it a happy ending; ironically, he was attacked for violating his original unpopular ending. In adapting and staging The American (and deftly compressing the plot and the number of characters) for the City Lit Theater Company, Michael Salvador wants to provide the faithful dramatization that James’s dramatic tale deserves. He pretty much does; in two and a half hours he manages to capture the feel of a richly layered novel–and its length as well (the scenes that spell out more than they show could well be trimmed).

Salvador is especially adept at letting us savor the delicious humor of this culture clash. When Newman mentions that his sister married the owner of a large india-rubber house, the old marquise murmurs, “Ah, you make houses also of india rubber,” to which the young marquise adds, “You can stretch them as your family increases. (Newman characteristically misses the mockery behind the laughter.) Another example is that when the old marquise first meets Newman she coos, “You’re an American. I’ve seen several Americans.” Newman drily answers, “There are several in Paris.” Unperturbed, the marquise says she didn’t know that–the ones she saw were in England; she’s reduced Americans to the status of rare zoo animals.

Like all City Lit shows, The American is performed in story-theater style–which means that the characters sometimes improbably describe themselves with an objectivity they couldn’t have had, while the narrative (efficiently rendered by Mark Amenta and Laura Hitt) often tells us what the actors should really show us. Why not, for instance, provide a pause instead of saying, “There was a long moment during which no one talked”? There was an exasperating lack of consistent accents; the English characters had none, and only the young marquise sounded French.

Still, set against some very committed acting, these are quibbles. Even though he underplayed the title character’s brash vulgarity, David Ward supplied an earnest rectitude that was no mere wooden decency. By the end, Ward had made this out-of-place San Franciscan deeply sympathetic. Lisa Marie Schultz was just as convincing as the cloistered Claire. Among other telling moments, her agonized farewell to Newman was painfully accurate–she can take a line like “I am too proud to be honest, but not too proud to be faithless” and make it come from deep within.

The supporting players rightly refused to indulge in old-world versus new-world stereotypes. Funereal in watered silk, Christine St. John was icily evil as the haughty matriarch, a truly diabolical dominatrix; she would rather have her face crack than reveal an emotion. As self-important Urbain, Mark Richard somehow managed to sneer with his whole body, a feat Urbain no doubt can do in his sleep. As the young minx of a marquise, Franette Liebow played her saucy, flirtatious soubrette with Gallic wit, and Lou Anne Hamilton was effectively mysterious as the secret-stowing servant Mrs. Bread. The chief disappointment was Steve Abrahamson’s too vigorous, insufficiently haunted Valentin. On top of muffing his lines on opening night, Abrahamson, with his broad portrayal, cheated Valentin of his vulnerability and any sense of his doomed resistance to the Bellegardes’ iron respectability. Valentin’s death scene felt especially insincere.

Elegant with filigreed gilt, James Deery’s set was sensuously stylized. Fashion plates came to brilliant life in Patricia Hart’s sumptuous costumes, and Dan Lawrence’s wigs were astoundingly accurate for the 1870s. On a small budget City Lit achieved much of the look of James Ivory’s The Bostonians or Masterpiece Theatre’s The Golden Bowl.