Refreshing, isn't it, to witness a play on Broadway about complicated and fascinating women who work (successfully) and love (with decidedly mixed results) and manage to be friends? This flawed yet very real relationship exists on stage despite the fact that its creator (playwright John van Druten) could have far more easily made his two female protagonists comic enemies. The Roundabout's Broadway revival of van Druten's Old Acquaintance reminds us that there was a time in the theater when plays for and about women were as commonplace as, well, a Katharine Hepburn movie or a Bette Davis melodrama. In our so-called enlightened age of sexual equality, we are not yet getting plays with such dynamically delicious characters as the two successful novelists, Katherine Markham (played by Margaret Colin) and Mildred Watson (essayed by Harriet Harris), who so memorably dominate this delightful, serio-comic play.
In Old Acquaintance, which should have been called Old Friends, the longtime relationship and rivalry between these two successful writers, one a critics' darling (Kate) and the other a wildly successful commercial workhorse (Millie), is certainly played for laughs but underneath it all it's really a story of female solidarity played out not only among former childhood pals, but also among generations. A couple of love stories are involved as well, but they also end up helping to drive the play's main theme.
Our female protagonists are less rivals in regard to their careers as they are over the loyalty and affection of Millie's teenage daughter, Deirdre (Diane Davis). Kate is a classy and sophisticated role model who treats the young girl like a loving aunt, while Millie spoils her daughter and tries to control her. Naturally, all of this battling comes to a comic boil because of their male relationships. Let it be known that both older women have their histories with men – a history that intersects in the past – but despite the sometimes soap opera(ish) ways in which van Druten piles it on, the underlying humanity of these characters invariably comes through.
Colin and Harris are exceptional, with the former wisely underplaying as the latter just as wisely reaches out broadly for the comedy in a role that would otherwise be far less likeable if not for the laughter she engenders. Unfortunately, Diane Davis is charmless as Deirdre, but that fault in the production is more than compensated for by the exceedingly charming Corey Stall who plays Kate's young lover with a winsome honesty. Rounding out the main players is Stephen Bogardus, who is dashing as Millie's ex-husband (and a man with a secret).
In addition to a most attractive cast, the play itself is handsomely put on by director Michael Wilson, who keeps the talk lively with his kinetic stage craft. And the stage itself is a wonder with two magnificent sets designed by Alexander Dodge, one of Kate's elegantly studious apartment and the other of Millie's extravagant pink palace. So, too, the costume design by David C. Woolard defines all of the characters with beauty and stylish wit. One of Millie's costumes actually elicited good-humored laughter from the audience.
Finally, let us readily concede that this modest 1940 comedy never intends to carry the freight of women's literature on its slight shoulders, but its easy charm and ready laughs can only heighten our awareness that contemporary plays on Broadway are not, themselves, carrying that very same freight.
4 Stars: Beyond Glory
As if in counterpoint to the female play at the Roundabout's Broadway house, the company's other space, the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, is the new home of a real guy play, a one-man show written and performed by Stephen Lang called Beyond Glory. Though it's a one-man show, it seems as if there is a battalion of characters in this awesome acting vehicle that is nothing if not a fireworks display of Lang's thespian versatility.
The play, based on a book by Larry Smith, tells the stories of a wide variety of heroic American soldiers in combat, ranging from World War II to the present. Using projection designs by John Boesche on an otherwise simple set created by Tony Cisek, augmented by sharply effective lighting design by Dan Covey and sound design by Cecil Averett, Lang is a marvel to behold. Under the smart and careful direction of Robert Falls, Lang weaves, then glides and sometimes bursts into each characterization. Buff and tough, the actor holds the stage with his fiery presence, reminding us at times of Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, and then as readily, Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back. Except the men Lang portrays are not famous. He just makes them seem that way by virtue of his own heroic performance.
The play itself is not quite as good as Lang, himself. Each story rises and falls on its own merits; the accumulation of them doesn't lead to a greater understanding of heroism but rather reinforcement, if you will, that bravery in combat is more often a matter of survival than of overcoming ones fears.