A charming period look at a naughtily sophisticated love affair.
By Joel Benjamin
Best known as the source material for the scintillating 1937 star-driven, screwball comedy film of the same name, Arthur Richman’s The Awful Truth (1922), now at the Metropolitan Playhouse, is, of course, not as rollickingly funny and doesn’t have that kind of Hollywood star power, but what it does have is a sophisticatedly risqué attitude toward love and (im)morality rare for its era of polite drawing room comedies. Ironically, The Awful Truth is, for all intents and purposes, a drawing room comedy, but with the saucy twist of old infidelities raising their smirking heads.
Divorcee Lucy Warriner (Alexandra O’Daly), sophisticated New Yorker, running a tad low in her bank account, is affianced to rich, but dull, Oklahoman Daniel Leeson (J. Stephen Brantley). It could never be the passionate romantic union she had with Norman Satterly (Nate Washburn) from whom she was divorced a few years before under cloudy circumstances. Daniel has set up several hurdles to their betrothal, the highest of which is his stately, stuffy aunt, Mrs. Leeson (Emily Jon Mitchell) who is brought in to interrogate Lucy about the sordid details of her divorce.
Mrs. Leeson isn’t totally satisfied with Lucy’s defense against accusations of an extramarital affair with Rufus Kempster (Mark August, who also doubles as the butler, Jayson). Lucy decides to bring in the big guns, her ex Norman and, for good measure, her supposed illicit lover, Rufus, to testify in her behalf and solidify her alibi. When Norman and Rufus appear, things get sticky, with old passions re-awakening, credulity strained and doubts not quite assuaged.
Does Lucy fare well with Daniel and his pompous Aunt? Did Lucy have an affair with married Rufus? Does Norman, who nobly took the fall in his divorce from Lucy, really, truly believe she didn’t cheat on him? How Richman cleverly answers these and other questions—all the while displaying a keen fondness for these upper crust characters and how they speak and behave—is the gist of The Awful Truth.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Eustace Trent (Benjamin Russell) and his wife, Josephine (Erin Leigh Schmoyer) who serve as the exemplars of boringly upper middle class contentment and two servants, Jayson and French maid, Celeste (a pert Eden Epstein, whose accent is a physicality hoot).
The Metropolitan Playhouse production, directed by Michael Hardart, serves the play well, never winking at the period silliness and manners. The show could benefit from quicker pacing, but the performance I saw was early in the run and things will certainly pick up as the actors get into the rhythms of this very talky show.
The settings by Met Playhouse artistic director, Alex Roe didn’t differentiate enough between the décors of the contentedly middle class Eustace and Josephine Trent’s domestically comfortable library and the with-it, up-to-date Lucy’s living room. The costumes by Sidney Fortner were period perfect. However, I wish more attention would have been paid to the men’s hairstyles which were far too current for a show taking place in the slicked-back 1920s.
The cast all had a secure handle on their slightly stiff period dialogue. They also avoided over-stylizing their characters, making them living, breathing—albeit quirky—people.
Photo: © Jacob J. Goldberg Photography
The Awful Truth. Through October 18, 2015 at the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 East 4th Street, between Avenues A & B) For tickets call 800-838-3006 or visit www.MetropolitanPlayhouse.org
Running time: one hour 45 minutes including one intermission