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A Marriage Contract

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 23, 2018

Anna Stefanic and Trevor St. John-Gilbert
Photo by Hannah Stampleman

We are fortunate in New York to have a couple of theater companies that specialize in presenting older plays that generally have been confined to dusty shelves and haven't seen the light of day in a very long time. One of these is the Metropolitan Playhouse tucked away in the East Village, which is now offering a charming romantic comedy dating to 1892, called A Marriage Contract.

Playwright Augustin Daly was a rather successful man of the theater in his lifetime, serving as a critic, producer, writer, and director. He is mostly known for his melodramas, particularly two that the Metropolitan has previously produced, Under the Gaslight and Leah, the Forsaken. Unlike these intense works, however, A Marriage Contract is in a far lighter mode. Its plot follows the kind of comic arc favored by Shakespeare: couples leave the city for a "green world," where they undergo every manner of stress and mixup until, inevitably, love triumphs and it's back to the city for all.

Here, the city is New York, where Robert Fleming (Trevor St. John-Gilbert), a confident young man-about-town has come to the father of his beloved Sabina Pognip (Anna Stefanic) to formally, or as he puts it, "out of respect for a superannuated custom," seek the blessing of the older man. But the wealthy and suspicious Jessekiah Pognip (Mike Durkin) is having none of it. Robert is the 12th suitor to try to get around him, with Number 13, Nathaniel Grinnell (a delightfully dorky Tyler Kent) literally waiting in the wings. The would-be father-in-law is pretty certain he can get rid of any and all comers.

Robert and Mr. Pognip go back and forth for a long time, with neither willing to capitulate, until finally Pognip comes up with a plan he believes will silence the pesky young man once and for all. He devises a contract, whereby Robert will have to give up living in the city and move to Pognip's family home in "East Lemons," a small country town somewhere in New Jersey. Unable to find any wiggle room, Fleming agrees. And so it's off to East Lemons, where he will have to deal with boredom, visits from the town's nosy gossips (Dionna Eshleman and Teresa Kelsey), and constant interference from his father-in-law until he can manage his escape.

In addition to the main plot, we also follow the trials and tribulations of Nathaniel, who is always a day late and a dollar short with his every pursuit. After losing out in his quest for Sabina, he has turned his ever-hopeful gaze to Juno Jessamine (a delightful Jennifer Reddish), a freethinking woman with a twinkle in her eye who is quite preoccupied with reining in her husband Ned (Nick Giedris) and is happy to use Nathaniel as her unwitting helper. There is a great deal made about city vs. country until just before the intermission. That's when the two lifestyles collide with a rousing, Champagne-fueled rendition of "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay." Thus begins a slow softening of attitude among the provincial country folk that ends, eventually, with in an audience-pleasing d├ętente.

As is typical of these older plays, A Marriage Contract, with a running time of two and a half hours, takes a while to work up a head of steam. But the cast of mostly Equity actors warms things up, especially as the plot floats away on those Champagne bubbles. There is a great deal of fun to be found in the play's second half as the two pairs of lovers and the hapless Nathaniel work through their problems and provide the audience with its happy ending. Alex Roe, the company's artistic director, helms the production with its relatively large cast of 12. He is also responsible for the simple but effective set design, while Sidney Fortner has put together a fine collection of period costumes.

A Marriage Contract
Through March 18
Metropolitan Playhouse, 200 East 4th Street
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