The Midtown International Theatre Festival
Forget the fervent political potboiling and the imposing presence of the love that dare not speak its name. Of all the theatrical tropes that collide in Gentleman’s Wish, Lawson Caldwell’s watchable but thoroughly unenlightening play at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the most audacious and telling of all is also the most ancient and unavoidable: the sassy maid.
You know the type. She’s ostensibly an indispensible part of the family, yet never visibly works. She knows everyone better than they know themselves, and will prove it at any moment with a lash of her razor-edged tongue. And, perhaps most importantly, she’ll appear onstage at the top of the show with the lady of the house to dispense all the vital exposition. All that’s missing is an oversized feather duster - and you would have thought that since Lawson and his director, Holly-Anne Ruggiero, have reverted to the 17th century for the rest of her shtick, they might as well have swiped a period prop, too. So superannuated was this device even by 1942 that Thornton Wilder savaged it with the character of Sabina in his play, The Skin of Our Teeth.
That the character doesn’t work here isn’t the fault of Loni Ackerman, who plays the saucy servant, Dora, with a fine approximation of the boozy brio Beth Leavel rode to a Tony Award in The Drowsy Chaperone three years back. Though appearing at least two decades too young for the role, Ackerman’s got the acid glares and whip-snapping timing necessarily to sell the cobwebby jokes and wispy sentimentality that constitute her entire extraneous character. But in a play that otherwise wants to pretend it’s utterly up to the moment, why should Ackerman have to deploy those skills at all?
That, alas, is above Caldwell’s playwright pay grade - and in more ways than one. The whole of the show seems to belong to a different era, when sexual and electoral priorities were aligned differently than they are today. To hear Hanford Drake (Fred Anthony Marco) talk, the mid 1990s, when he began his 12 year as a United States senator from an unnamed (but obviously blue-leaning) state, were so unfriendly to gay men they might as well have ensconced in the pre-Stonewall decades. (The preponderance of cell phones, however, firmly roots the story in today.) Hanford’s only solution was to bury his 20-year relationship with his best friend, Lake (Peter J. Crosby), at the risk of... well, it’s perhaps best not to think of such things.
Yet the controversy swirling around Hanford is less that he’s gay than that Lake came at the expense of Hanford’s wife, Sarah (Renée Bang Allen), and son, Haney (Timothy Mele). Caldwell gives that betrayal, variations of which fueled any number of Greek tragedies, relatively short shrift. As written and acted, Haney is a brat who feels so lied to that he needs five minutes rather than four to reconcile his differences with Dad. And Sarah is carved as such an opportunistic harridan, willing to destroy everyone’s life to maintain her position as a senator’s wife, that you’re compelled to root against her from her first appearance. Throw in the nigh-saintly Lake and Hanford’s disappointed but ever-understanding mother (Carolyn Seiff), and the dramatic decks are stacked to Reno-ridiculing proportions.
Caldwell has wisely steered the action away from the backstabbing and cloakroom deal-making that so often characterize political drama, and stuck with his main issue from beginning to end. This keeps Gentleman’s Wish from being ungainly to follow or stretching credulity too much further. (You’re given no reason, other than Sarah’s shrewishness, to believe the well-connected-liberal Hanford won’t survive this scandal unscathed.) You just wish that every scene filling out the too-breezy 75-minute running time weren’t so calculatedly safe; the plot feels like a combination of the collapses of Jim McGreevy and Mark Sanford, but lacks their stories’ catalytic suspense.
Except for Allen, who too readily embodies Sarah’s barking tendencies, the actors snugly fit their roles as pawns in a lackadaisical social chess game. Marco, for example, is particularly clever in only slowly integrating traditionally “swishy” mannerisms into his performance, letting Hanford’s homosexuality emerge as gradually for us as it likely did for everyone else in the play. Ruggiero’s declarative, economical staging ensures that everything is presented is smart, even if the show itself frequently isn’t.
With one moderate exception, that is. The closest thing to a subplot occurs between Tom (Scott Raven Tarazevits), Wilson (Eric Rubbe), and Elise (a mutedly luminous Samantha Ives), three members of Hanford’s staff whose personal lives variously mirror that of their boss. Elise’s is notable because of its subtlety (who is that she’s always talking to on the phone?) and Tom and Wilson’s because of its overtness - for them, Hanford’s struggle hits too close to home.
Seeing how the three cope with - or avoid - living private lives in the public eye when they’re themselves under close scrutiny helps Gentleman’s Wish feel more perennially relevant than any part of its central concern. Of course, it’s improbable that Tom and Wilson really need to be quite as worried about their own secret as they are, but they’re young, so we can give them the benefit of the doubt. The rest of Gentleman’s Wish - maid and all - is somewhat harder to instantly accept.