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The New York Idea

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Countryman and Jaime Ray Newman.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

One of the funniest words in common theatrical parlance is "adapt." It can refer to an actor on tour entering a new house for the first time. Designers and technicians may need adapters for certain kinds of electrical or computer equipment. Or, perhaps most commonly, one playwright may be taking the work of another—perhaps originally written in another language, perhaps in his own—and updating it for modern ears and sensibilities. But even within that word, there are vast gradations of possibility—does it mean the writer is reducing the cast size, performing a minor nip and tuck, or basically rewriting everything? The last is certainly the case with the Atlantic Theater Company's arid and difficult new production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, The New York Idea.

Never heard of it? You're excused. It was a hit in the 1906-1907 Broadway season, but hasn't exactly been seen much in the, oh, century since. Its playwright, Langdon Mitchell, who is perhaps "best" known as the writer of the 1899 stage extraction of Vanity Fair called Becky Sharp, never quite achieved the status of household name. Still, with The New York Idea, he accomplished something original, fascinating, and well worthy of revival—and something that "adapter" David Auburn and director Mark Brokaw almost entirely prevent us from seeing.

Some characters have been excised, combined, or compressed, which is perhaps to have been expected. (The original play counted 15 characters; this one 12.) But whole plot threads have been rearranged or removed entirely, and whole scenes have been stricken or restructured. Auburn hasn't just completely reshaped the play, he's reconsidered its essential nature almost from the ground up. The result is an evening that may be more "modern" in some ways, but feels less relevant and more haphazard than the work of the same name it's attempting to replace.

Auburn has, at least, retained the basic plot. High-powered lawyer Philip Philimore (Michael Countryman) has divorced his wife, Vida (Francesca Faridany), and plans to remarry the younger, if rougher around the edges, Cynthia Karslake (Jaime Ray Newman), who is herself newly divorced from John (Jeremy Shamos). Alas, prejudices and emotional bonds die hard, and just as Philip's tony family isn't certain it's willing to accept the more earthy Cynthia into its circle (she's really into not just breeding horses, but betting on races), Cynthia and John aren't entirely sure they're over each other. John possessed none of the constancy and reliability that Cynthia craves and found in Philip, yet she remains drawn to him nonetheless.

All four acts of the play (Brokaw's production is presented with only one intermission) are concerned with exploring and untangling who wants to be with whom and who should be with whom, all against the backdrop of a polite society in which people just don't do these things. This world is represented on the Manhattan side by Philip's mother (Patricia O'Connell) and aunt (Patricia Conolly), and on the international front by the visiting English playboy, Wilfred Cates-Darby (Rick Holmes), who's thoroughly amazed at how impermanent relationships seem to be on this side of the pond. Ideally, the ideological battle between the camps should carry sufficient drama to rock common-sense notions of back-then propriety, and more than enough comedy to make the bitter messages go down.

Auburn proved with his excellent 2000 play Proof that he understands how to achieve and sustain complex equilibrium like this, but with all his tinkering here he has only upset what was already a precarious balance. Philip was always the least visible of the quartet, but now he's been de-emphasized even more; the same is true of Vida, who should firmly represent the opposite pole from Cynthia, but now feels like nothing more than a vaguely defined antagonist. This throws extra weight onto John and Cynthia, but because a fair amount of their own framework has been removed or hollowed out, they simply can't support the weight of a narrative that needs to fire equally on all cylinders merely to have a chance. When plot or emotional threads seem to appear out of nowhere or vanish at a moment's instant, or when their importance dissolves or solidifies apparently at random, a coherent story is difficult to follow.

In taking ownership of Mitchell's play, Auburn has transformed it from one that barely works by today's standards into one that doesn't work at all. That sets up all sorts of problems for Brokaw, who cannot maintain consistent atmosphere or pacing even within scenes; sometimes moments stretch on endlessly, others are plowed through breathlessly, but very little lands the way it seems it ought to. Worse, he's helped the actors create no sense of believable contrast between the factions: Cynthia comes across as a one-dimensional American Eliza Doolittle, her detractors like well-dressed impostors. You never believe, as you really need to, that both ways of life are at stake from this one woman leaping a perceived class barrier.

The performances, then, are largely for naught, and all but bereft of a unified style. Newman is appealing, but even in her grace-drenched upscale clothes (by Michael Krass), she looks and sounds like she stumbled off of present-day Christopher Street. Countryman's personality reads as so lackluster, you can never tell who or what he represents, or whether he cares about anything. Shamos and Faridany, effectively embody willful approaches to their respectively fifth-floor and Fifth Avenue lives, but neither ever convinces you they are actually reacting to the period's questionable delicacy. O'Connell and Conolly come closest to capturing the proper feeling for their meddling-minded matriarchs; the roundly unconvincing and broad Holmes, John Keating as an indefinably European horse trainer, and especially Joey Slotnick, channeling his inner Andy Dick as Philip's sleazy preacher brother, have the most trouble blending in.

Still, who can blame them? By sacrificing so much of the original script's color and messy whimsy, Auburn has made The New York Idea into a play that doesn't know what it is, and full of characters who no longer remember what they're supposed to be. Once upon a time, Mitchell's play warned about the dangers of ignoring or interfering with the tides of social and sexual change. Now, Auburn's revision warns instead against trying to make "new" a play that should entice specifically because it captured a moment in history no one alive today quite understands. David Mamet picked a more universal subject for his 2006 adaptation for the Atlantic, The Voysey Inheritance, and had greater success—of course, he also knew better than to mess with it too much. By assuming the original can't stand on its own, it's Auburn—not the march of time—that's most directly inspired this play's collapse.

The New York Idea
Through February 13
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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