Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 29, 2009
Accent on Youth by Samson Raphaelson. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Original music and sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Lisa Banes, Rosie Benton, Curt Bouril, David Furr, Mary Catherine Garrison, Byron Jennings, Charles Kimbrough, David Hyde Pierce, John Wernke.
No, not the play itself. That’s technically about the divergent (and often incompatible) ways that people of different ages view and pursue love. But MTC’s mounting is its own crystalline window to a time that’s essentially unthinkable today. The instant the curtain (yes, a real curtain) rises on the drawing room of superstar playwright (no, I’m serious) Steven Gaye (that’s his name), and begins its incessant meta-tweaking of theatre folk, personalities, and scripts as if none of it had ever been done before, you know you’ve been catapulted into a different era. (Did I mention that Stephen has a secretary? And a butler? Named Flogdell?)
This is good for the production, which Daniel Sullivan has directed with no shortage of spit and polish, which John Lee Beatty (sets) and Jane Greenwood (costumes) have designed with luscious period detail, and which the cast - led by the fine pair of David Hyde Pierce and Mary Catherine Garrison - acts with elegant, dust-busting abandon. But it does the 1934 play no favors, because it just reminds you of the many more involved, interesting, and inventive ways in which this device has been used over the course of the last seven and a half decades.
You see it mostly in musicals - and, probably, more than you should - these days. [title of show], The Drowsy Chaperone, and The Producers occupy one end of the spectrum, gently mocking the conventions that theatre practitioners and theatregoers take for granted, and other titles like A Chorus Line and Chicago adopt the theatre as an ultimate metaphor for life. (The Fringe Festival and New York Musical Theatre Festival also introduce new titles annually.) All these shows dissect, dissemble, and reassemble the mythos of the theatre as an art, and the people who do it as a group who can’t always discern the difference between life onstage and off.
Because of the proliferation of this idea, there’s not quite as much zest as there might have once been in watching a handful of silly characters play out a romantic triangle that is astonishingly like the one they’re writing about or acting in. Nor does the idea of a work- and self-obsessed dramatist, who literally speaks in punctuation and stage directions and “borrows” others’ most sensitive declarations for inclusion in future shows, coming to learn that sometimes living out a love affair - even a convoluted and painful one - can be a lot more rewarding than just writing about it.
Accent on Youth may have “gone there” first, but that (and the age issue) is still pretty much all it’s about - and that’s an insecure rack on which to hang an entire evening. So if you care at all about the 53-year-old Stephen (Hyde Pierce) falling in love with his devoted (and decades-younger) secretary, Linda (Garrison), and pushing her into a career as an actress in his latest comedy called Old Love, it’s in a foggy, remote way at best. That Linda falls for the young man, Dickie Reynolds (David Furr), who plays her paramour in the play, is harder still to swallow without objection - especially since this development exactly mirrors one in Old Love - although it’s fuel enough to keep the action sputtering along for a pleasant, if empty-headed, two hours.
The time is rounded out by supporting characters who bolster the theme, but provide no more than the barest adornment themselves. Chief among these are Frank Galloway (Byron Jennings), an aging character man who’s graduated to playing an old letch in Old Love; Miss Darling (Lisa Banes), who’s playing the shrewish wife; Genevieve Lang (a grand Rosie Benton), the past-her-prime ingénue intended for the part Linda inherits; and, of course, Flogdell (an ideally cast Charles Kimbrough), Stephen’s getting-up-there butler, who has plans of marrying the 23-year-old house girl in the neighboring building.
Was theatre - or life - ever really this colorful? It’s certainly the romantic view of the period as it exists today, and Raphaelson has written much of this with convincing authority. (Although plot developments that introduce a pair of gangland toughs named Butch and Chuck, played by Curt Bouril and John Wernke, do stretch credibility well beyond the breaking point.) Even so, all the dramatic contrivances and conceptually expedient filler (at one point, Frank and Flogdell start Indian wrestling to prove which is better preserved for his age) do wear after a while, and the entertainment you get as part of the package is primitive and predictable at best.
Hyde Pierce and Garrison are delightful, however. His trademark gazing-down detachment gives Stephen plenty of stuffiness to dissolve as he learns to put himself across his own emotional footlights, much the way it did for the starstruck detective Hyde Pierce played to Tony-winning perfection two years ago in the musical Curtains. Garrison’s portrayal is one of her most clear-eyed and -voiced yet, utterly free of the mousy squeakiness she’s brought to practically every other role (including, appropriately, Squeaky Fromme in the 2004 Roundabout revival of Assassins). Strictly speaking, the two don’t have much chemistry - but, really, that’s sort of the point. Lasting, if not necessarily trouble-free, partnerships are often found or established where you’d never expect to find them, but the right people can make anything believable onstage.
Well, almost anything: Raphaelson’s play seems too flimsy and outmoded for even the best actors to make fresh and relevant. But if it’s as hoary a museum piece as one can imagine, at least Sullivan, Hyde Pierce, Garrison, and the others have made it as pristine as possible. Because of the talent of everyone involved, you’ll probably be glad you saw Accent on Youth. But you’ll be even happier when you can jump back in your time machine and head home.