Edith Wharton's former Lenox estate, The Mount, is undergoing extensive renovations, and there is a rumor that Shakespeare & Company may not be able to continue the charming custom of staging adaptations of the lady of the house's short stories-- along with some other adaptations from authors known to her-- in the second floor salon whose French doors open onto the Italianate terrace with a breathtaking view across the gardens to the lake. Just in case, people who are of a temperament to appreciate a step back in time might consider altering their vacation plans to take in this year's double bill matinee, with an intermission featuring tea and biscuits served in the Wharton parlor next door. It is an experience not to be missed: one almost expects Mrs. Wharton to sail into her parlor at any moment. She might be taken aback at what some tourists consider appropriate dress these days, but she would surely to be pleased by the performances, and delighted to see her beloved house a place of theatrical as well as literary and architectural pilgrimage.
This year's Shakespeare & Company's combination of one acts contrasts Mrs. Wharton's The Dilettante with a short story by Guy de Maupassant, The Mistress. The first is rather Jamesian in the understatement and indirection with which the characters manage their affairs of the heart, the second an extroverted battle of the sexes, unabashedly ridiculous.
In "The Dilettante" Mrs. Margaret Vervain (Diane Prusha), is a wealthy widow who for some years has centered her emotional life on a relationship with a somewhat younger man, Thursdale Pemberton (John Rahal Sarrouf); Pemberton comes to visit Mrs. Vervain in private one last time-- his dear friend met for the first time the previous evening the young girl with whom Pemberton has fallen in love, and whom he has asked to marry him. Pemberton is pleased, even smug, about the results of that potentially fraught meeting. His old and dear friend carried the meeting off brilliantly, with her perfect tact and sensitivity, stressing how old and slighting how dear their friendship. Mrs. Vervain-- Margaret-- demonstrated once again the superior qualities for which he has always valued her: her ability to make his wishes her first priority. Pemberton is confident that his fiancee Ruth (Marybeth Bentwood) will understand that his intimate friendship with the artistic Mrs. Vervain (she paints) can only speak well for him as a man of discernment, although they all also understand that the friendship will of course become much less intimate now that Pemberton has pledged himself to matrimony.
However, Ruth doesn't give a hoot about her future husband's discernment. She was indeed convinced that Mrs. Vervain is an exemplary woman: lovely, graceful, warm, well behaved. A woman with whom any man would be proud to be associated. But what Pemberton's fiancee wants to know is whether the pair has had a passionate affair which is now, by mutual consent, played out; or whether their relationship was not mutual but one of love on the one side and and mere pleasure on the other. The young woman dashes to Mrs. Vervain's to confront her rival. The question then becomes, how much of her famed sensitivity and tact will Mrs. Vervain employ? And to what end? Diane Prusha has not quite found a way to send up emotional flares each time Margaret Vervain reassesses her situation and sets a conversational course based on her new perception. We see mostly the social surface, less of the fires within. Bentwood's Ruth seems to be able to pick up cues that are imperceptible to at least this member of the audience: she reacts as if a whole complex history of pain and regret had been revealed to her in a few little words.
John Rahal Sarrouf's Pemberton seems rather shallow to have stirred such depths in two such intelligent women-- but then we have no idea what other gentlemen might have had to offer at this particular time, in this particular place. Not the least of the pleasures of attending the Wharton occasions at Shakespeare & Company is the invitation to speculate about just this sort of thing.
Sarrouf reappears after tea as Antoine de Castellare in Richard Burdick's adaptation of Maupassant's "The Mistress" , half of an upper class Punch and Judy team with partner Antonia Freeland. The minimal set by Patrick Brennan and maximum costumes by Govanne Lohbauer are delicious, and director Cecil MacKinnon has the performers whip off witticisms and fling themselves into attitudes and pratfalls playing a couple who are determined not to let passion go out of their marriage-- even if it must be passion for somebody other than their infuriating straying spouse. Sarrouf and Freeland adopt comic phony French accents which make no sense but do somehow make polysyllabic lists and exaggerated exposition sound hilarious, and they milk the utmost out of every turn of what passes here for a plot. I bet Freeland could set the audience to howling if she read from the phone book: the Parisian phone book, of course.