Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Delicious Production of The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue

Also see Richard's reviews of Black Nativity, all wear bowlers and Jersey Boys

Warren David Keith, Nancy Sauder, Phoebe Moyer, and Maureen McVerry
TheatreWorks celebrates the holiday season by presenting the West Coast premiere of David Grimm's The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through December 23rd. The play premiered at The Hartford Stage last year where it received excellent reviews. This marks the second time the satire has been performed.

David Grimm translated and freely adapted this travesty from Moliere's Les Femmes Savants. He has updated the little known French play to the depression area of 1936 in New York. Moliere's characters are faithful to his style of writing verse couplets. The architecture of his sing song language is a pleasure of the ear. All of the driving forces of the characters is crystal clear to the audience.

Director Robert Kelley has assembled a superb cast that is neither obvious nor caricatured. The farce could have been over-acted but each actor with split-timing has put a human face of each character. This is a well-oiled ensemble.

The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue is a screwball reminiscent of some of those thirties flicks such as My Man Godfrey. This is a cutting satire on the pretentiousness of the nouveau riche during the Great Depression. The learned ladies are mother Phyllis Crystal (Phoebe Moyer) a Gladys Cooper type who rules the rouse with an iron glove; Aunt Sylvia (Maureen McVerry), who has the supreme ego that allows her to think that everyone is in love with her; older sister Ramona (Julia Motyka) who thinks she is a Communist but has never attended a meeting with the common man organization; and Betty (Kristin Stokes), a scatter-brained but loveable innocent.

The ladies, with the exception of Betty, are "ga ga" over a narcissistic poet and leach Upton Gabbitt (Brian Herdon) who spouts inane poems about the homeless. He somehow reminds me of that great character film actor Fritz Field. Betty loves the hard-working common man Dicky Mayhew (Darren Bridgett), and Betty's father Henry Crystal (Warren David Keith) and Uncle Rupert (Jackson Davis) connive to make sure Betty will be married to the upstanding, beloved Mayhew and not the phony intellectual Gabbitt. A wonderful scene in the second act includes T.S. Bains (Colin Thomson), another author who is patterned after a cross between William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. The war of words between him and Gabbitt is a tour de force of bitchy banter.

The cast is rounded out by the Hungarian cook Magda (Nancy Sauder) who loves going to the movies to see Clark Gable, and the butler (Nick Nakashima) and maid (Fiona Cheung), who gracefully dance at the opening and between scenes to Cole Porter's jazz music. All of these wonderful folks define heroes and villains right to a tee.

Playwright Grimm's message is that intellectual pursuits on the part of the female should be banned and that their place is in the bedroom, kitchen or nursery. Only Dicky and Betty have traditional family values. It is hilarious as the three leaned ladies, the nitwit women, circle the poet Gabbitt at one of his poetry readings as if they are hearing the words of the gods, and they repeat his words until they collapse from sheer ecstasy.

All of the actors are skilled in handling the brittle Upper East Side rhymed couplets of speech, especially Phoebe Moyer (winner of six Dean Goodman awards and five Bay Area Theatre Awards) who gives a consummate performance as the domineering Phyllis Crystal. She has the skill to blend her operatic frenzy with incorruptibility, especially when she demands that the cook be fired for reading Hollywood gossip magazines. Maureen McVerry (recently in Pardon My English at 42nd Street Moon and Into the Woods at TheatreWorks) is wonderful playing an over the hill femme fatale who thinks all men are unavoidably attracted to her. Julia Motyka (seen Off-Broadway in We Got Issues, The Last Starfighter: the Musical) gives a cool performance as Betty's supercilious sister. She reminds me of the great British stage actress Patricia Hodge. Kristin Stokes (Brooklyn Boy, Into the Woods, Jane Eyre: The Musical at Theatre Works) is captivating as the perky Betty. Her manners and speech are so much like Kristin Chenoweth that she could take over any of the New York and film actress's roles.

Warren David Keith (Heartbreak Hotel, Spinning Into Butter, Emma) is splendid as Papa Crystal, the canned-bean czar, as he goes from spineless husband to cautious warrior with amiable charm. Darren Bridgett (Nickels and Dimed, Book of Days, Far East at TheatreWorks) gives a heartwarming, boyish performance as Dicky Mayhew. He has great comic flair as he avidly assures us of his love and sincerity.

Brian Herdon (A Little Princess) as the conceited and freeloading poet Upton Gabbitt gives a convincing portrayal of an oily and lecherous person. His readings of over the top campy poems are priceless. Colin Thompson (All My Sons, I Love You, You're Perfect) shines in his one-scene role as T.S. Baines in the battle of words with the egotistic poet. His southern accent is very reminiscence of Tennessee Williams.

Jackson Davis (Into the Woods, Intimate Apparel) is genial as Uncle Rupert. He plays the role like an urbane sophisticated character and reminds me of British actor Rupert Everett. Nancy Sauder (My Antonia, The Clean House) gives a beguiling performance as the Hungarian cook who loves the movies. Nick Nakashima (Emma and Golden Apple at 42nd Street Moon) and Fiona Cheung (Li'l Abner, Mack & Mabel at 42nd Street Moon) as the butler and maid have no words, but boy can they dance to the jazzy rhythms of Cole Porter.

Joe Ragey's art deco set marvelously punctuates the 1930s urbane setting. It is an elegantly detailed set of whites, blacks and a great skyline from the balcony of the living area, courtesy of the lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are opulent and right to the period of the 1930s. Robert Kelley's direction is chic and fluid.

The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue has been extended through December 31st at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit

Their next production will be Anthony Clarvoe's Ambition Facing West at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, Mountain View. Ca.

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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