THE FANCY MAN
Can’t someone adapt D.H. Lawrence for the stage so that we can stop getting cheap imitations? Why are plays about working-class Brits so popular this year? Why are so many plays based on less than informative news stories? And why does director Peter Forster seem obsessed with fatal attractions? Thoughts on all of these points came to mind after–and, unfortunately, during–the staging of Mike Stott’s The Fancy Man, a new work from Yorkshire, England, that is having its North American premiere upstairs at the Royal-George.
First the facts of the story. In 1923 Arthur Granville and his pregnant wife Amy, married barely a year, were found dead in their bedroom after what appeared to be a double suicide. Bruises on Amy’s neck led the jury at the inquest to conclude that Arthur had strangled her, then hooked a hose up to the gas and killed himself. The only doubts were raised by the testimony of Amy’s sister Edith, who asserted that the bruises dated from a characteristic quarrel a couple weeks before that was sparked by Arthur’s suspicion that Amy had taken a lover. After the quarrel the two had got on together with a harmony never before noted by their intimates–until their deaths.
A lurid enough story–but Stott wasn’t content to leave it at that. In his account Amy is a discontented bride, frustrated at what she perceives as her husband’s posthoneymoon indifference. Waxing rebellious, she leads her husband to think that she has nightly trysts with a “fancy man,” which she describes in detail–titillating her spouse, and causing him anguish. After he declares that he can take no more, she placates him by claiming to have ceased her adventures for his sake. The imaginary inamorato is not to be dismissed so easily, however.
This is the kind of situation that lends itself most readily to comedy, with the two naive newlyweds growing more and more confused by the charade but eventually coming to understand one another’s needs, whereupon they confess and make up. But Stott appears to be more interested in recounting the sexual awakening of Amy and Arthur through the mutual fantasy of a perfect paramour. This fancy man is at first conjured from Amy’s spite and rejected by the unimaginative Arthur, but the fantasy encourages both to experiment with erotic games and to become sensually enamored of one another–to the consternation of the local football team, which needs Arthur’s prowess on a different field, and to the dismay of the neighbors, who are appalled (and secretly envious) at the noises emanating from the Granville’s bedroom.
This too might have worked as dramatic narrative. But there’s the problem of that double death–gassing oneself by means of a 12-foot hose connected to a wall fixture is not something one does without premeditation. All the publicity leads us to believe The Fancy Man is a romantic drama. Granted, uncontrolled eroticism is dangerous. And granted, romanticism demands that the lovers die before their perfect love becomes sullied by anything revoltingly mundane. But there is no indication that Amy and Arthur were ever any more fond of one another than they are after a year of marriage, so how did they come to marry? Does Stott mean to say that too much sex between spouses will lead to untimely death? That an erotic attraction based on a lie is a sin that will be punished by self-destruction? That there is no hope for a marriage in which there is no love, whether true or false? Or does Stott kill off his hapless lovers simply because the news story from which he took his inspiration said that it happened that way? Whatever, Stott never tells us enough about how these people came to be the way they are to enable a skeptical 20th-century audience to buy the Granville’s double suicide. And so the exhortations of the engagingly banal Dr. Peach, the comically banal Miss Mellodew, and even the abrasively banal Edith to “make do with what you have” strike us as perfectly reasonable, however much they seem to chafe the Granvilles.
There’s also the problem of Peter Forster’s direction, which renders the characters so unsympathetic that we don’t even care what motivated these two. Early on in the play we see Amy staring stormily into space, her lovely face set in a scowling pout, and then we hear her shriek at her unfortunate husband like a teenager in a tantrum. We know immediately that what we have here is another quintessential “romantic” heroine–that is, a manipulative, hormone-riddled sociopath who will make a great deal of trouble, then devise some way to off herself and take her lover with her. Her death wish is contagious. Before long, Arthur is also twisting himself up in torment, refusing to be convinced that the child Amy carries is his own, even after she confesses the impossibility of any alternative sire. So exasperated do we become at the determination of these two unlikable children to torture themselves that our response to their death is as much “good riddance” as anything.
To eliminate any uncertainty about the tragic outcome, set designer Scott Johnson has constructed a stark hard-surfaced interior (the primary building material appeared to be unpainted particleboard), and a marital bed that resembles a mortuary slab. This prop unfolds to become part of an excavation project for Arthur and his mates that looks suspiciously like grave digging. Apparently even this failed to invoke a suitable level of necrophilia in the audience, which chortled and guffawed through Amy and Arthur’s agony, possibly anticipating the rational resolution that never came.
The actors in the production have obviously been carefully instructed to behave as they do, making evaluation of their artistic skills difficult. Pamela Gay (Amy) and Patrick Walker (Arthur) maintain their serious demeanor heroically in roles that require them to utter such drivel as, “I’ve felt that. Ecstasy. Right through all my body. Ecstasy. Have you ever felt such a thing?” Their roles also include more incidental nudity than would be found in three seasons at Steppenwolf. Guy Barile plays the chief voice of reason, Dr. Peach, with a warmth and humor as entertaining as it is subversive in such a humorless play; the scene between him and Miss Mellodew (Maripat Donovan) is a study in subtle comic timing, however misplaced as a whole. Donna Freeburn plays the apron-clad Edith with her usual irritating vulgarity. Joel Pownall as Amy’s father and Simon Perry as Arthur’s sidekick steal every scene in which they appear–not a difficult thing to do when occupying a stage so small that the cast of seven couldn’t fit on it at the same time.
In tragedy, nature reflects the actions of the protagonist. In romance, it reflects the feelings of its hero, which is why romantic drama has not taken well to our modern, intimate stages. The theaters of the romantic period were large enough to allow the cataclysms that accompany elephantine emotions to be depicted–a scope that is better provided nowadays by the cinema. Stott’s and Forster’s attempts to package grand passion in two unlettered proletarians living in a bucolic cage evokes more claustrophobia than compassion, even as the lovers’ insularity comes to crowd out the rest of their world.