Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 28, 2007
Old Acquaintance by John van Druten. Directed by Michael Wilson. Set design by Alexander Dodge. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Margaret Colin, Harriet Harris, Stephen Bogardus, Diane Davis, Corey Stoll, Cynthia Darlow, Gordana Rashovich.
The two women in question, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris, are among the brighter shining lights of the ranks of working actresses who do consistently credible work but only occasionally get the respect (and the jobs) they deserve. Harris won a Tony Award (for Thoroughly Modern Millie five years ago) and has done some recent high-profile TV work, and Colin has shone in shows like Jackie (playing Jacqueline Kennedy) and, last season, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt follow-up Defiance. Both are the kind of performers whose names frequently come up in conversations starting with questions like, "You know who should be back on Broadway?"
In such cases, the answer should always be an immediate yes. But both need tight-fitting roles that allow them to display their unique gifts of finding life-embracing nuance (of the rational variety for Colin, and of the just-out-of-reach enthusiastic for Harris) in complicated women.
These are not traits that van Druten's play requires - or benefits from. Writing in 1940, van Druten could be assured his audience would bring a certain familiarity with and interest in the sort of literary-society bitchiness he was writing about. This freed him to play off those expectations in depicting the combustible relationship of critical darling Katherine Markham (here played by Colin) and popular success Mildred Watson Drake (Harris) as he liked.
Without that frame of reference today, however, and with nearly seven additional decades bombarding us with these archetypes through plays, movies, and especially television, often in far raunchier and more blistering forms, Old Acquaintance looks quaint and even stodgy. As Michael Wilson proves here with his soft-spoken direction, the play can still mildly entertain as it examines the ways the women love each other, love to hate each other, and raise and ruin each other's lives, usually without thinking. But it can't have any real impact without the more piercing personalities that Colin and Harris, for all their professionalism, cannot provide.
The show's 1943 film version preserves the vicious, viscous chemistry of Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as both throat-slitters and staunch defenders. If both of those women were somewhat able to successfully capitalize on their established screen personae, Colin and Harris are tasked with building everything from scratch. That gives a less affecting immediate payoff, but makes fine intellectual sense: Colin's smoke-drenched sophistication justifies Katherine's succs d'estime leanings, while Harris's boozy jitteriness is perfect for the flighty Mildred who sticks to tried-and-true formulas in her literary and personal pursuits.
Two key supporting players make much stronger impressions: If Diane Davis too pushily plays up the youthfulness as Mildred's 19-year-old daughter, she strikes notes of rebellious anxiety that are highly believable for a young woman with a mother like Mildred. Better still is Corey Stoll as Katherine's live-in boy-toy, who against Katherine's express wishes has fallen hopelessly in love with her: The interior battle he fights between desire and reason is the production's most compelling conflict. Stephen Bogardus brings a dry appeal to Preston, Mildred's ex-husband who represents of the overly scripted subplot that tries to drive Katherine and Mildred apart.
It's hardly spoiling too much to say it never has a chance. In fairness, though, surprising the audience was not van Druten's goal. Nor is it Wilson's: Only John Gromada's typewriter-gossip original music adds a new twist to this old-fashioned outing; the majestic '40s apartment sets (by Alexander Dodge), the business-formal costumes (David C. Woolard), and the unobtrusive lighting (by Rui Rita) are as par for the course as the pregnant silences from Colin at especially shattering moments or Harris's effortless traipsing through her various tropes about mending the rifts in her life with her limited psychological sewing kit. Some things are just a given.
"There's something indestructible between us," rings a line near the end of the play's third and final act, suggesting that a deep friendship between like-minded but opposite-attracted women is one of them. The response, arriving shortly thereafter, is the evening's most succinct summation: "I think we all need old friends, or an old friend." It's an "aww" moment, to be sure, and by the time the play reaches its conclusion both Colin and Harris have ingratiated themselves enough to you that they might well seem like friends of yours. If only their parting shots, like so much of Old Acquaintance, weren't such facile restatements of points no one needs made.