Monday, August 27, 2012

French Without Tears: The Popular Music of Another Time

The cast of French Without Tears at the Shaw Festival (Photo: David Cooper)

French Without Tears at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake comes half a year too late for the Terence Rattigan centennial, but productions of this skillfully assembled entertainment are too rare for caviling – especially considering what a fine job director Kate Lynch and her (mostly) young cast have done with this one. It was the play that made Rattigan famous: the 1935 West End production ran for years and the play was filmed in 1940. To my knowledge he never wrote anything else like it. It’s a distinctly thirties mix of drawing-room comedy, junior division, and romantic comedy; the closest American equivalent would probably be something like Having Wonderful Time, the Arthur Kober play set at a Catskills adult summer camp that was filmed, quite enjoyably, in 1938 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers. French Without Tears is about a group of privileged young Englishmen living together in a villa in France over the summer and studying French in preparation for the Diplomatic Corps or international business. Except for the most juvenile among them, Kenneth (known as Babe and played by Billy Lake), whose haplessness at acquiring the language preoccupies him – the opening image, which gets repeated, is of him slamming his head against the dining-room table – the boys’ focus isn’t, of course, their studies, but women. One of them, Brian (Craig Pike), has been paying his attentions to a local (offstage) flirt named Chi-Chi. The others orbit around Babe’s sister Diana (Robin Evan Willis), who is officially dating Kit (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) but enjoys unsettling Alan (Ben Sanders), the most intellectually gifted of the crew, and the handsome newcomer Bill Rogers (Martin Happer), a naval lieutenant-commander a little older than the others. (The title of the play derives from a now démodé promise once offered by language instruction programs.)

Diana’s amorousness initially sets Rogers against Kit (naturally) but also Alan, who feels protective of his friend but turns out to be equally susceptible to her charms. She’s a smooth operator: she offers the same line to Bill and Kit, and when they find out and confront her, demanding to know which of them she loves, she faces them off without flinching and proclaims that the real object of her affections is Alan. She’s so deft that when she gets Alan alone and protests that he’s awakened in her the only genuine feelings she’s ever had for a man, you wonder for a moment or two whether she might actually be in earnest. It helps that Willis plays the scene in a clinging lamé gown that sets off her golden hair (William Schmuck’s costumes, like his set, are excellent), and that she has such terrific technique. She must have studied the physicality of stage-trained film stars of the period who knew how to wear clothes wittily and to use their bodies as well as their faces as tools for stylization, to punctuate their line readings (hers are equally expert) with the head tossed back, the shoulders held in anticipation, the back resting provocatively against a doorway, a half-amused, half-quizzical look in their eyes.

Martin Happer and Robin Evan Willis (Photo: David Cooper)
Diana’s opposite number is Jacqueline, the daughter of the dyspeptic professor (Shaw veteran Michael Ball, providing, as always, another shining example of superior stage technique), who has fallen in love with Kit. In this role, Julie Martell is earthier and warmer. There’s a beautifully played scene between the two women near the end of the first act where Diana, who knows how “Jack” (as the boys call her) feels about Kit, argues that making men tumble for her is her only gift, whereas Jacqueline has many – and that everyone likes Jacqueline, whereas that’s not a response anyone ever has to Diana. Diana’s self-awareness may be the reason that, though she acts like a bitch, it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for her. It’s a tricky role, however; a less expert actress could easily alienate an audience. The other standout member of the cast is Happer, who does comic wonders with the commander’s denseness and his four-square quality. The younger male actors are charming, though they handle the verbal demands of their parts more adeptly than the physical ones. (Billy Lake tends to push a little too much, but he’s so sweetly dopey as Babe that he wins you over, especially when he appears for the Bastille Day costume ball at the local casino dressed as a sailor and when, in the final scene, he gets a satisfying schoolboy’s revenge on the professor for constantly brutalizing him in tutorial.) The fact that Happer is more physically comfortable on stage than Bogert-O’Brien is one of the reasons that the scene where they almost get into a fist fight over Diana doesn’t work.

The other reason is that Lynch isn’t especially good at this kind of stage business. (To be truthful, it’s never a strong suit of Shaw productions.) But she’s marvelous with the actors, she gets the style of this long-forgotten sort of comedy – no small achievement – and she can evoke the mood of a communal gathering, an overlapping dinner-table confab or a drunken late-night bull session, just by the way she positions the characters. The best joke in the play is that Diana’s duplicitousness and her habit of keeping men on the string winds up bonding them. And the best scene (except, perhaps, for the tête-à-tête between Diana and Jacqueline) is the one at the top of act two where Alan, Kit and Bill, in their cups, discuss women and Bill advises Alan to chuck “the Diplomatic,” which is really his titled father’s ambition for his son, and go off and become a writer, which is what Alan dreams of for himself. Bill doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but his emotional support of the younger man is both sweet and funny, as is Alan and Kit’s mutual wonder at how badly they’ve misjudged him. When the lights come up on this scene, Alan and Kit are lying back to back on the floor downstage, smoking cigars and sharing a pillow, while Bill slumps half-passed out in a chair just above them. It’s a delightful tableau.

Every year the Shaw mounts one or two obscure English (and occasionally American) plays and has to struggle to fill seats. The night I saw French Without Tears there were visible gaps in the house, yet the audience was obviously having a good time. I don’t always like these rediscoveries – those endless programs of one-acts that made up Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 a couple of seasons ago were something of a disaster, and last year’s Drama at Inish wasn’t much good either – but I applaud the festival’s efforts to unearth neglected works. I’d hate to see it give them up for economic reasons. Not only is French Without Tears a lovely show in a style and genre that had more or less vanished by the end of the Second World War, but you know while you’re watching it that you’re never going to see it resurrected anywhere else. And more’s the pity.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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