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The Fourposter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jessica Dickey and Todd Weeks.
Photo by Suzi Sadler

Given all its squabbling about the little things in life, you might think The Fourposter couldn't go big if it tried. Yet despite chronicling such impediments to connubial bliss as wedding-night jitters, potential adultery, and spirit-sapping ennui, Jan de Hartog's charming comedy emerges by its final scene as an expansive portrait of not just an American marriage, but America itself in all its enterprising, maddening, and romantic spirit.

It's because the play still sparkles as brightly today as it must have in 1951, when married couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy originated the roles of married couple Michael and Agnes, that the current Keen Company revival at the Clurman Theatre so frustrates. You're treated in the script to a thoroughly charming scrapbook of occasionally rocky long-term togetherness, from the day Michael and Agnes move into their house to the day they move out, that's only rarely animated by the performers (Todd Weeks and Jessica Dickey), the direction (by Blake Lawrence), and the set design (by Sandra Goldmark).

This should not be misconstrued as The Fourposter justifying its rarely revived status. If the play's concerns bespeak the gentleness of a now-vanished era - both the early 1950s and the 1890-1925 setting - its clear-eyed optimism about the benefits and difficulties of living up to the vow "till death do us part" are if anything more trenchant in today's divorce-happy times. Each of the six scenes spread across three acts reveals a new obstacle to happiness - having a baby, Michael's success as a pulp novelist, the taking of an illicit lover (or two), trouble with increasingly rebellious children - that establishes and then supports the view that one should never fret over the minor things. In the larger view, most moments are exactly that.

The ultimate tapestry woven from all this, however, is anything but tiny. By the final scene, which shows Michael and Agnes at their most playful, we've come to understand the importance of strife to any persistent happiness. De Hartog reminds us that you can't have the good times without the bad, and as he alternately shows us each - with a loving, if rarely sentimental, patina - we realize that he could as well have shown us any other six events from Michael and Agnes's life: The old saying really is true that the whole matters far more than merely the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, that same message is barely communicated by Lawrence's production. The precarious economics of today's Off-Broadway likely don't allow for the full-scale scenic design that renders the single locale, Michael and Agnes's bedroom, with six very different faces. Goldmark's design, except for the titular bed that dominates the set, is spare and sterile as a business traveler's motel for each of the 35 years the bedroom is occupied. It never looks lived-in and it never reflects the changes Michael and Agnes undergo, from struggling to successful to declining, which dilutes the subtle point that where we live can say as much about us as do our actions.

This would be less crucial if Lawrence, Weeks, and Dickey were more adept at filling in the gaps themselves. But though the actors change costumes for every scene, and Theresa Squire's getups are rich in period flavor, they give you little sense of Michael and Agnes's own refashioning as time stretches on. Weeks is a font of unapplied nervous energy in the first scene, but hardly grows up even as circumstances demand Michael evolve from boy to man; Dickey assumes some of the serious weight Agnes takes on her shoulders, but is only slightly more successful than weeks at creating six very different versions of one character during that time.

We must believe these two can be as terrified of being together as they can be weakened at the thought of being apart. But with listless, inconclusive staging, and few atmospheric throughlines, Lawrence offers little hint of what unites them (upbringing? Duty? Good old-fashioned sex?), and that keeps the play from delivering the gut-punching power it could.

Even awash in a watery wistfulness, as here, The Fourposter satisfies as sensitive, touching, and often warmly funny drama of the kind Broadway has forgotten how to create in the last 57 years. Michael and Agnes still call to us through the decades, imploring us to take our commitment to others as seriously as we do our devotion to ourselves. It's a lesson still worth listening to, even if Lawrence, Weeks, and Dickey seldom make it easy to hear.

The Fourposter
Through November 22
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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