It's amazing. Shakespeare and Company's new salon theatre in Spring Lawn, the mansion gracing the huge complex into which the company is moving its operations from its previous location at Edith Wharton's mansion, The Mount, is exactly like its old salon theatre, only better-- brighter, just a tiny bit more spacious and gracious. The company has settled in and made themselves perfectly at home, in a way that may only be possible when the artists own a place. Artists, yes, at first and always. But suddenly-- although perfectly welcoming to us, the fans and tourists crowding in to see them-- they are Aristocracy, inhabiting this luxurious Summer Place as if by Divine Right. Dennis Krausnick's adaptation of Henry James' "An International Episode" is the most accomplished "Wharton" I've seen yet. How Krausnik enables the actors to convey the comic flavor of a complex and leisurely Jamesian elegance with the spare but witty snippets he gives them as dialogue is a mystery to me: but elegant it is, and quite, quite, delicious. Between themselves, the American sisters and the English cousins talk in that fashion that James described as being composed of "..many odd silences, lapses of logic and incongruities of transition.... like people thoroughly conscious of a common point of view, so that a style of conversation superficially lacking in finish might suffice for a reference to a fund of associations in the light of which everything was all right." Cross culturally, however, the dialogue is a conversational minefield -- where all but two or three of the explosions are of laughter.
Jack Westgate (Jeffrey Kent) a wealthy and well connected New York businessman, a receives social call at his office from two aristocratic English bachelors with a letter of introduction, young Lord Lambeth (Ethan Flower) and his somewhat older cousin Percy Beaumont (John Rahal Sarrouf) . The Englishmen are stunned by the sudden heat of a New York summer, drained of all capacity to cope with a strange land. But Westgate is massively hospitable. He offers to deal with Beaumont's little business errand -- it has to do with a railroad-- and then, turning the gentlemen over to his young assistant Willie Woodly (Ben Lambert) Westgate sends them off to his cool summer "cottage" at Newport, where they will to be entertained by his wife Kitty (Corinna May) and her seriously clever but impecunious younger sister, Betsy (Kate Holland). Betsy has been raised by the girls' eldest sister in Boston, where she "studied immensely and read everything". Mrs. Westgate believes that "The most charming girl in the world is a New York superstructure upon a Boston foundation."
Woodly, who is in love with Betsy, is glad to escort the cousins to Newport, as it means that he will see the object of his admiration, but he is worried about the effect of high birth and elegant Old World manners on his love's susceptibilities. Both English gentlemen are looking forward to the company of lovely American ladies bent on their mutual enjoyment, but Beaumont warns Lambeth that he must be very very careful. American manners are so different from those of English society that a man may put his foot wrong and make a terrible mistake. Beaumont has been charged by Lambeth's mother the Duchess with looking after him, but between his own unfamiliarity with the customs of the country and Lambeth's -- shall we say simplicity?-- it would scarcely do to call the university educated heir to a dukedom stupid!-- Beaumont hasn't much confidence that they will get home unscathed. Sure enough, both gentlemen are soon thoroughly entangled. Beaumont finds himself in an intense flirtation based on Kitty's theatrical interpretation of what she characterizes as their necessary and natural enmity, based on opposing national mores. Kitty much prefers Paris to London. Paris is "heaven to Americans", while London is..... shopping. This nationalistic enmity somehow translates into sexual sparring, and Lambeth has a suspicion that once Beaumont and Mrs. Westgate out of sight the sparring turns into a real match. (Since this is Henry James, the suspicion is never confirmed.)
When Beaumont has a moment free to check on Lambeth, it is to discover to his horror that his lordly charge, disarmed by Betsy's honest interest and stimulating conversation, is tumbling into love with an American Nobody. A penniless bluestocking. Worse, the heir to the Bayswater dukedom is thinking of marriage! Beaumont tells his cousin that clever Betsy has set trap for him, but Lambeth denies it. He doubts whether Betsy would accept him if he were to propose. As the only girl he's ever been interested in who has ever given him the impression that although she likes him very well she wouldn't want to marry him, Betsy is uniquely attractive. Percy sends word to Lambeth's mother the Duchess, and Lambeth is summoned home posthaste.
All this high comedy transpires with unhurried efficiency, with the company displaying a graceful command of Victorian manners and costume and an absolute mastery of Tone. The precarious balance between reactions expressed and suppressed, the dizzying effect of pointed speeches that can be taken more than one way--- the by-play Normi Noel's direction facilitates between these characters is exquisite. This includes Diane Prusha's American matron, a stand-in for the whole off stage bustle of Newport society and a second specimen of the species American Wife, and the Westgate butler Piggot, doubled by Kent after he has made his lasting impression as Mr. Westgate. Westgate, as the businessman husband who is too busy working to ever have time to spend with his guests or his wife, disappears immediately after setting everything in motion. As the ladies keep pointing out, "In America we have no leisure class."
The second half -- it could well be a Second Act, as the play, though gossamer, is substantial enough to fill an evening-- takes place in London, where the Westgate ladies are staying at an uncomfortable but expensive hotel rather than with any of the well to do Londoners who might be expected to return the hospitality lavished upon them by the Westgates in Newport. This change of venue is economically indicated by a pair of potted palms. Lord Lambeth shows up three months into the visit, but then quickly forms a determination to use his prerogatives to force his family in particular and English society generally to accept this American Nobody as his future duchess. This is the core situation of the archetypal shop girl romance, but here the focus is on the effect of an independent minded American girl like Betsy on Lambeth, scion of privilege. Ethan Flower gives us a character who a kind of overgrown infant, sweet and soft and shortsighted and sheltered, but able to rely on the awesome power of Entitlement when necessary. His Lambeth blossoms under the interrogations of the girl who hopes to find him as great personally as he is historically and by precedence. The character's dawning realization that Betsy's regard matters more to him than anyone else's, and that contrary to everyone else's opinion, it is possible that he could fail to secure that regard, is sketched in deftly for comic effect-- but it is also touching.
The second Wharton One Act, " The Rembrandt" which unlike the first
is a Wharton story and of one act length, should probably be at the head
of the double bill as a curtain raiser. John Rahal Sarrouf,
kept firmly and decorously bound to convention as Beaumont, is set loose
to fizz and fret and fulminate as Miles Hackett, an assistant museum
curator. His cousin Eleanor (Kate Holland) has taken up the cause
of an impoverished widow, one Mrs. Fontage (Diane Prusha). On her
long ago European honeymoon Mrs. Fontage bought what she and her husband
believed to be an unsigned Rembrandt. This picture is all that stands between
the widow and destitution. If Hackett authenticates it, or at least
looks at it --- Hackett wants to do nothing of the sort. Eleanor
is plotting to get money into Mrs. Fontage's hands, and she cares noting
for poor Miles' integrity, or his chances of promotion, or his modest bank
account. Although Sarrouf's Hackett resists being drawn into his cousin's
plot with all his might, leaving no farcical stone unturned, Holland's
American Lady sweeps all before her. Only Corinna May's goddess like intervention
as the influential museum trustee Mrs. Crozier, back from a trip
to India filled with that Old Time Hindu religion, can save Hackett
from the consequences of his involuntary benevolence. Everyone plays
this brief romp full out, unabashedly going for the belly laughs, and it
is great fun. But I think I'd prefer "The Rembrandt" to be
served as the appetizer to the more substantial "Incident", rather
than as dessert.