- 9/15/14
Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Fatal Weakness

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Kristin Griffith and Patricia Kilgarriff
Photo by Richard Termine.

The Mint Theater Company has gained a stellar reputation for researching, finding, and presenting plays that greatly entertained audiences back in the day but now are shrouded in obscurity - that is, until the Mint gets to them. Heading in to see the company's current production, George Kelly's The Fatal Weakness (1946), I commented to a colleague that it's remarkable how often the plays thus excavated and mounted prove to be wonderfully stage worthy in our own time, considering that they're superficially so "dated" in terms of milieu, language, character types, and so on. A stellar example: John Van Druten's London Wall, such a triumph for the Mint last season that it was chosen as one of several recent Off-Broadway productions to be telecast by WNET-13 as part of its new "Theater Close-Up" Series. (London Wall is set to air on Thursday, October 2 at 9pm, with a repeat telecast on Sunday the 5th at 10:30. Be sure to watch it or DVR it or whatever.)

Still, it only stands to reason that some of the plays revived by the company turn out to be less good than others. In reviewing the Mint's 2013 production of Kelly's Philip Goes Forth, I commented that the play reminded me of some of the rarely revived early operas of Giuseppe Verdi in that it contains a large amount of uninspired writing occasionally sparked by some truly creative passages that make us understand why Kelly was an audience favorite for many years.

The Mint's current offering, George Kelly's The Fatal Weakness (1946), is similarly problematic, although the main issue here is not verbosity but, rather, that several of the plot points stretch credibility like a hyper-extended rubber band. Still, the play is worth seeing because it feels so bracingly modern in its examination of an idealized, romantic concept of marriage and family life vs. the reality of same —this in a piece dating from nearly 70 years ago, a time when, in the words of writer John M. Clum as quoted in the program for this production, the "primacy and validity of the nuclear family . . . was not to be questioned."

The action of the play begins at a fraught moment for Mrs. Ollie Espenshade; we see her fluttering about the sitting room of her gorgeously appointed apartment in an unnamed American city that seems be somewhere in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area. Having just received an anonymous letter informing her that her husband, Paul, is carrying on with another woman, Mrs. E. seeks help from her friend, Mabel Wentz, who conceives an elaborate plan to determine the veracity of the allegations. The unfolding of that plan is the main business of the plot, but Kelly also involves us in the family situation of the Espenshades' daughter, Penny, whose own marriage is in trouble for very different reasons: In stark contrast to her mother, Penny views marriage and traditional family life from a cynical, aggressively "free-thinking" perspective, much to the dismay of her husband, Vernon.

All of this is very interesting in essence and in theory, but the fatal weakness of the The Fatal Weakness is a plot so contrived as to severely strain one's willing suspension of disbelief. For example, Mabel Wentz's scheme to find out if Paul Espenshade has in fact been unfaithful to his wife is so ridiculous and convoluted that it would be too much to swallow even in a screwball comedy, and the details of the supposed affair sound more and more incredible as they're gradually revealed. Penny's apparent lack of love for her husband and child isn't hard to believe in itself, but that she would so coldly and unashamedly express it to her mother most definitely is. Although we learn that Penny and Vernon's son is three years old, both parents speak of him in a way that makes him sound like a boy of at least eight or nine. A major event occurs between the penultimate scene of the play and the final scene, yet it seems highly unlikely that it could have happened so quickly, with only "some weeks" having passed. And, also in the final scene, Mrs. E. decides to do something that's completely preposterous. (The fact that her friend Mabel tells her it's preposterous doesn't let the playwright off the hook.)

There are several more "Excuse me?" moments in The Fatal Weakness, but further citations would probably qualify as spoilers, so let's stop there and give huge credit to the cast and director Jesse Marchese for making it all palatable through their total commitment to the play. Kristin Griffith is near perfection as Ollie (an odd name, short for Olive or Olivia?), so besotted by an unrealistically romantic image of marriage that she attends the weddings of strangers. The actress's only miscalculation is in playing up the character's pretentiously upper-crust, mid-Atlantic style of speech to the point where it becomes a full-blown British accent, which is rather distracting. Cynthia Darlow is spot on as the pragmatic busybody Mabel Wentz, her work marred only by a couple of minor line flubs during the preview performance I attended.

Cliff Bemis and Victoria Mack are both first-rate in the tricky roles of Paul Espenshade and daughter Penny; Bemis's Paul comes across as so good-hearted and guileless that the audience is kept guessing as to whether or not he's really cheating on his wife, while Mack plays the insufferable Penny with intelligence and with no condescension. Sean Patrick Hopkins is wonderfully warm as Vernon, and Patricia Kilgarriff is dream casting as the Irish maid, Anna.

Last season, I praised lighting designer Price Johnston for somehow managing to light the Mint's superb production of Donogoo without washing out the many projections used in that show. Christian DeAngelis works a similar near-miracle with The Fatal Weakness; the walls of Vicki R. Davis's beautiful unit set for the Espenshades' sitting room are completely mirrored, yet there's no problem with glare from the lights —at least, not from where I was sitting. Andrea Varga's costumes, Joshua Yocom's props, and Gary Arave's wigs are other excellent elements of a typically excellent Mint effort.

Speaking of where I was sitting, it should be mentioned that sightlines in the Mint's performance venue at 311 West 43rd Street are not clear from some seats, and partly depending on how tall one is, because the rake of the seating isn't steep enough in terms of the height of the stage and the proximity of the stage to the audience. Seeing how the company is well established as one of Off-Broadway's best, and now that the Mint will soon become known to much larger audiences via television, here's hoping that a renovation or a move to another venue might happen sometime in the not too distant future.

The Fatal Weakness
Through October 12
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.minttheater.org

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