Enchanted April by Matthew Barber. From the novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Directed by Michael Wilson. Scenic Design by Tony Straiges. Costume Design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting Design by Rui Rita. Original Music and Sound by John Gromada. Hair and Wig Design by Paul Huntley. Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht. Cast: Elizabeth Ashley, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Conolly, Michael Cumpsty, Dagmara Dominczyk, Daniel Gerroll, Michael Hayden, and Molly Ringwald. Originally produced at the Hartford Stage Company. The Producers wish to express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
With May rapidly approaching, the dark days of this past April, with temperatures and weather patterns more appropriate to fall than spring, are behind us. But still, dark clouds may gather around the human heart and mind, and for those who succumb, brighter days may never come. Such is the lesson of Enchanted April, Matthew Barber's new stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's early 1920s novel, now gracing the Belasco Theatre with the promise of better times and sunnier outlooks for most everyone.
Fortunately, that does include, to at least some level, the audience. On the most basic level, Enchanted April is a success as a romantic comedy because it's both comic and romantic. In telling the story of four English women who break free of their rain-drenched sorrows and oppression for a month in a rented Italian castle, there's plenty of opportunity for surprises and redemption, hopes that Barber never squelches.
Getting to that point may prove a chore for some, as the castle itself - almost another character in the play - doesn't make its appearance until the second act. It's not until the women arrive there that the play really gets going, becoming the lithe, magical comedy suggested by much of the first act's dialogue and, in fact, the show's logo itself. Those waiting strictly for the light-hearted excitement of the second act to arrive may well find the first act a challenge.
Barber's work is unbalanced a bit in that way - London and Italy receive about equal stage time, which tends to dilute Italy's transformative effects on the characters. Director Michael Wilson does everything he can to work around this, creating - with the help of his designers (Tony Straiges on sets, Jess Goldstein on costumes, and Rui Rita on lights) - two acts that contrast each other physically and emotionally. The first act is rendered in almost bleak understatement and muted colors, with black dominant throughout, with the second gorgeously depicted in brightly-lit springtime colors.
The audience, then, is able to more effectively still relate with Lotty Wilton and Rose Arnott (Jayne Atkinson and Molly Ringwald), two women trapped in unsatisfying marriages (to society man Mellersh, played by Michael Cumpsty, and globetrotting writer Frederick, played by Daniel Garroll, respectively). Comparisons are frequently (and cleverly) made between Lotty and Rose and the widows of World War I, all of whom have, to some degree lost their husbands.
If it takes a series of somewhat contrived occurrences to get Lotty and Rose's husbands to the Mezzago castle, it's not without strong dramatic effect: The men come to blossom almost as much as the women do. Frederick is forced to choose to embrace or reject the love he had been ignoring, and Mellersh must decide if his stuffy, uptight ways are worth losing his wife over.
The latter bit affords Cumpsty a priceless bit of physical comedy that had the audience in stitches, but remains an important landmark in the transformation of his character. Barber's writing is not always consistent in its quality or tone, but he never wastes a moment with any of the characters he's created. Enchanted April is at its most satisfying when Barber really lets the characters go and tackles the issues of wars between the sexes (and even wars within the sexes) head on. That's when all the characters really come alive, and when the performers really get their best opportunities.
In the cast, though, there's not a weak link to be found. Dagmara Dominczyk, as the third of the renters, and Gerroll are a bit underused dramatically, and not quite defined the way most of the other characters are. Of the four lead women, Atkinson does the most with her role, having the strongest grip on the occasionally flowery language, and providing the smoothest characterization throughout. But Elizabeth Ashley's brilliant deadpan and Ringwald's slowly cracking insecure exterior round out the central performances nicely.
Nearly everyone else supports them, Patricia Connoly the most successful (and hilarious) as the castle's wise-cracking maid Costanza. (Almost all of her dialogue is in Italian, but it seldom seems to matter.) Cumpsty's gradual transition from upright and strait-laced to more free-thinking is a joy to watch, and he gives the best performance of any of the men, though Michael Hayden does consistently fine work as the castle's owner.
Everyone in the cast certainly seems to be having a delightful time onstage, and that's certainly not hard to understand. The audience may experience a similar joy and pleasure at the Belasco, though like the benefits of the month itself, those aspects of the show are a bit fleeting. Like the wisp of scent from flowers on a spring breeze, Enchanted April will likely remain little more than a light, pleasant memory once it's over. But to all those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine, that will likely be enough.