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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Swift and Sure Out of the Gate, Beth Henley’s Ridiculous Fraud Loses Its Way
and Runs Out of Gas

Also see Bob's review of What the Butler Saw

Ridiculous Fraud
Reg Rogers, Daniel London and Tim DeKay
Beth Henley is the playwright whose off-kilter Southern eccentrics moved and delighted us in her Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart (1981), and The Miss Firecracker Contest (1984). Both were adapted for the movie screen. A number of her plays have been produced in the intervening years, but none have achieved the success and fame of Crimes or, to a lesser extent, Firecracker. In her new play Ridiculous Fraud, commissioned and produced by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Henley gives us early tantalizing evidence that she is still capable of providing the first rate theatre of her greatest triumph. However, after a most delightful, signature opening scene, Fraud suffers from sprawling, over complicated develop.m.ent as the air goes out of her initially buoyant soufflé.

The initial setting is the comfortable Clay family home in the Garden District of New Orleans (five years before Hurricane Katrina). It is a summer night, and family members are returning from the pre-marital dinner-dance (often called the rehearsal dinner whether there is a rehearsal or not) prior to the next day’s scheduled wedding of Lafcad Clay, the youngest of the three confused Clay brothers. It seems that their widowed father is in the state penitentiary for fraud, and the house will have to be sold to pay lawyers’ bills and creditors.

Oldest brother Andrew puts forth an image of leadership, honesty and responsibility. He seems to believe his image, even though his real tendency is to be manipulative, intrusive, aggrandizing, and weakly corrupt. He is running for state auditor, to bolster the sagging family name, he says. His wife Willow is a spoiled rich girl who wants to run off with his brother Kap. This unhappy family sub tribe is completed by Willow’s atavistic father Ed, who is backing Andrew’s auditor campaign for corrupt ends, and his second wife Maude, who is hated by Willow. Single middle brother Kap lives in a cabin in the woods and works as a guide for wealthy duck hunters (that is when he is not bagging every woman who comes his way).

Youngest and least competent, least employable brother Lafcad seems about to bring some stability to the family with his marriage to a girl from a very well-heeled family. However, word is drifting back that Lafcad has told his no longer incipient bride that he has decided not to marry her. It seems that he had just realized that he didn’t want to get married, and had been planning to do so only to please his family.

Enough. Not for Beth Henley. Also on hand is Uncle Baites, the long in the tooth bachelor twin brother of the Clay brothers’ late mother. He is accompanied by a déclassé one-legged young woman named Georgia whom he picked up on a New Orleans street that afternoon. Because the artificial leg doesn’t fit right, it plays funny.

I have written precious little about the last three scenes which should give you a good idea of just how overwritten Ridiculous Fraud is. One evident theme is that most people are raised by parents with various levels of dysfunction who do not teach their children how to dance nimbly through their lives. Another is that when one chooses or pretends to choose a lifestyle in order to live up to societal or parental standards, his behavior will reveal him to be a Ridiculous Fraud.

The production has two scenes (designated as Act I and Act II) before intermission, and two scenes (Act III and Act IV) after intermission. There is one scene for each season of the year, beginning with Summer. Each scene has a different location, and the sets by Michael Yeargan are both airy and substantial. The first set, the home in New Orleans with its balcony, plants and trees is especially fetching and inviting. Interior and exterior are mostly in shades of green, a color used far more successfully here than it is by Bob Crowley in the just opened Broadway Tarzan. Director Lisa Peterson has come up with the effective idea of playing each scene on with some terrific recordings of New Orleans jazz while a series of slides project the act, season and location coming up. There is a playfulness here that creates the right mood for the play. Peterson has also drawn solid performances from her cast. However, there is an even, metronomic quality to the production which fails to provide any arc to the events.

Daniel London is especially charming as Lafcad. There is a looseness to his movements and words which match Henley’s words. Reg Rogers brings a sense of desperation to his Andrew which creates sympathy for this pushy hypocrite. Tim DeKay is a believable Kap, although Kap as written is not well defined.

Barbara Garrick is sympathetic as Maude and Ali Marsh is appropriately shrill as Willow. Heather Goldenhersh brings a certain raffish charm to the woebegone Georgia. Charles Haid projects an innocent sweetness as Uncle Baites in contrast to John Carroll Lynch’s peremptory Ed.

Those who are familiar with Crimes of the Heart will note a number of similarities, beginning, of course, with the eccentric nature of her Southerners. Crimes of the Heart finds three sisters gathered together in their Mississippi family home to face a crisis brought about by one having shot her husband. Ridiculous Fraud finds three brothers gathered at the family manse in the New Orleans for the wedding of the youngest. Whereas Crimes unfolds in its initial setting over a period of several days, each of Fraud’s four scenes has a different setting, and its events unfold over the course of the four seasons. Without altering the nature of event or character, it would likely prove beneficial for Henley to tighten and better focus Fraud by confining it to its initial setting and telescoping its events so that they occur over a much shorter period of time. It is not that there aren’t interesting develop.m.ents after the first scene. It is that there is too much shtick for too many characters, overwhelming them at present.

Happily, more than 20 years after her breakthrough success, Beth Henley is still out there, enticing us with a gallery of amusingly maladjusted and unhappy characters. However, in its present form, the overloaded and overly long Ridiculous Fraud fails to sustain its ebullience beyond its grand opening scene.

Ridiculous Fraud continues performances (Wed./ Thurs./ Sun. (5/21;6/4) 7:30p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 8p.m. ; Sat. 3p.m.; Sun. 2p.m.) through June 11, 2006 at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540; box office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.

Ridiculous Fraud by Beth Henley; directed by Lisa Peterson

Cast
Lafcad Clay…………..Daniel London
Andrew Clay………………Reg Rogers
Willow Clay…………………Ali Marsh
Kap Clay……………………..Tim Dekay
Uncle Baites…………….Charles Haid
Georgia…….Heather Goldenhersh
Maude……………..Barbara Garrick
Ed……………..John Carroll Lynch

Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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