Monday, April 16, 2018

Romance and Regret: The Age of Innocence

The cast of Douglas McGrath's adaptation of The Age of Innocence (Photo: T. Charles Erickson).

I returned to Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel
The Age of Innocence before seeing Douglas McGrath’s stage adaptation, the latest collaboration between Hartford Stage and the McCarter Theatre Center, currently playing a run in the former space. It’s a diverting read but it’s never been one of my favorites. Wharton retraces Henry James’s steps and, coming seventeen years after The Ambassadors, her book feels shallow and a little obvious. In The Ambassadors the characters’ motivations are concealed behind exquisite screens that keep shifting, and you have to catch those motivations during the shifts, through the minute shafts of light that vanish moments later; his feat is to raise our stake in discovering the truth of these human interactions so high that the epiphany at the end, which is devastating for the hero, Strether, is devastating for us as well. Wharton also builds her novel around a blind American, half-stiffened by his upbringing, who is seduced and altered by the whiff of European exoticism and mystique, in the form of Ellen Olenska, an émigré New Yorker who returns home on the lam from a disastrous marriage to a count. But Wharton spells everything out for us. And her protagonist Newland Archer, who is about to marry the Countess Olenska’s cousin May Welland, doesn’t synthesize our own conflicted feelings, the way Strether does; he comes across as a boob.  When Ellen falls in love with him, you wonder what on earth she could see in him.

There was a movie version in 1934 with Irene Dunne, John Boles and the celebrated, ineffable stage actress Julie Haydon, who made only a few films; I checked it out once when TCM ran it and couldn’t get through it. And of course there was a remake in 1993 by Martin Scorsese, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, in which the actors wandered through Dante Ferretti’s impressive sets like tourists visiting famous monuments, costumed to the gills (by Gabriella Pescucci) as ladies and gentlemen of New York’s upper echelon in the 1870s. It’s a gorgeous-looking movie. There are shots of snowy fields as lovely and gauzy as anything in Dr. Zhivago; a lingering image of Pfeiffer on a dock, gazing across the water, recalls Turner’s magnificent horizons, and another, of Day-Lewis and Ryder taking a carriage through Paris, evokes half a dozen French and American Impressionist painters. But the self-consciousness of the picture is paralyzing. Scorsese uses slow-mo and superimposition, he whirls his camera through expensively appointed ballroom scenes, he zooms in on baubles and silverware and cigar clippers to show us the elaborate superficiality of Manhattan high society, and he quotes the great romantic directors – Bertolucci, Visconti, Ophüls. But he doesn’t even come close to the reined-in good taste of these Yankee WASPs. (Repression isn’t in Scorsese’s psychological vocabulary.) The movie is wrong in every scene, though Pfeiffer’s Garbo-like performance makes it vibrate whenever she appears. The conflict in the story is between Ellen’s honesty and wholeheartedness of feeling and the emotional thinness of the easily scandalized – and scandal-mongering – New Yorkers who judge her every action, and who size up and categorize Newland’s attraction to her even before Newland himself does. (No wonder he seems so boobish; it’s always a bad idea for an author to show up the hero by having everyone in town figure him out before he’s figured himself out.) Pfeiffer is so vivacious in this role, such a shuddering tangle of contradictory feelings, that she sweeps the pallid New York contingent and all its meticulously constructed world of artifice before her. Her arrival upon the scene is like the messy, layered earthiness of Impressionism after academic classicism – she’s all color and light.

McGrath’s theatrical adaptation of the novel, staged with elegant authority by Doug Hughes on an enormous set by John Lee Beatty that looks like a beautiful burnished cage (Ben Stanton’s lighting enhances its splendor), fares much better. Partly that’s a result of McGrath’s decision to play so much of it, especially the first half, as a high comedy – not surprising in the writer-director of the 1996 movie version of Jane Austen’s Emma.  Mostly, though, the play’s success hinges on McGrath’s borrowing a wonderful idea that was last used, I believe, in Richard Nelson and Ricky Ian Gordon’s musical My Life with Albertine, based on the Albertine sections of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He provides a narrator - the grown-up Newland – who casts a melancholy, half-nostalgic, half-embarrassed glance backward at the follies of his youth as his twenty-something counterpart (played with rather sweet earnestness by Andrew Veenstra) acts them out; Hughes has even staged the two men so the Old Gentleman, as he’s called in the playbill, often replicates the movements of his younger self. The addition of this character lends a tender fondness to young Archer’s interactions with both Ellen (Sierra Boggess) and May (Helen Cespedes); we can’t get impatient with his callowness when, at a remove of probably four decades, the older version of him is presenting him with all his blemishes. The pièce de résistance is that the Old Gentleman is played by Boyd Gaines, in a poignant, rueful performance that is the finest work I’ve ever seen from him. Gaines seems to wear tiny shards of his shattered heart in the creases of his face, and his line readings poeticize the unassailable thieveries of time.

Boyd Gaines (back), Sierra Voggess, and Andrew Veenstra in The Age of Innocence. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Boggess is fine as far as she takes Ellen, but she’s chosen not to make the character especially exotic, which I think is unfortunate; it would underscore the dozens of small ways in which she is distinctive from the New Yorkers. (You might think of Nora Grégor as Christine de la Cheyniest in The Rules of the Game, whose house guests are always commenting on her foreignness.) On the other hand, Cespedes deepens the character of May Welland by giving her conventionality and expertly trained domesticity – she and Newland marry in the middle of the narrative – a touch of desperation that her tremendous charm never quite covers up. The supporting cast is effective across the board, with a few memorable glints of personality among them. Darrie Lawrence makes Mrs. Manson Miggatt, May and Ellen’s shared grandmother, both funny and warm. Haviland Morris has one perfectly calibrated scene as Newland’s mother, who has a genius for taking the temperature of New York high society and working out how to bring it up or down. Tony Ward plays Archer’s senior law partner, Mr. Letterblair, who comes across as considerably wiser and more in command in the play than he does in the book. And I liked Josh Salt as both the French secretary M. Rivière and, at the end, Newland’s son Dallas, whom we meet when he’s the age his father was when the Countess Olenska came unexpectedly into his life.

The play doesn’t have an intermission, and it could use one (and there are two or three moments that seem like good places to pause the action); at an hour and forty-five minutes without a break, the perambulations of the story become a little wearying, especially once the tone shifts away from high-comic to something more self-serious. And there’s a mistake that may be the consequence of budgetary restrictions but is a mistake nonetheless: though Linda Cho’s gowns are exquisite, especially May’s, the actresses don’t get more than one apiece. You can’t really get away with that in a realist play set among characters who go to the opera to be seen and even occasionally remark on their own choice of clothes. But both the adaptation and the production display a good deal of intelligence and wit, and I would gladly sit through it again just to hear what Boyd Gaines does with his lines.

– 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 is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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