Monday, October 27, 2014

Theater Review: George Kelly’s ‘Fatal Weakness,’ at the Mint Theater

Over the last several years that I have been attending performances at the Off-Broadway venue The Mint Theater, I have never known it to take a misstep—until now, with The Fatal Weakness, a comedy-drama that closed this past weekend. Even in this case, the fault lies less with the cast or crew than with the source material.

Last year, Philip Goes Forth, another play by George Kelly, had triumphantly demonstrated how good the Mint could be in its mission of reviving interest in unjustly neglected works. (See my post on that occasion here.)

I had high hopes, then, for The Fatal Weakness, and not a little of interest. After all, it was the last play by Kelly (a Pulitzer Prize winner for the 1920s drama Craig’s Wife, a playwright who, oddly enough, might be better known today as “Grace’s Uncle”). How would the play work, I wondered?

As it turned out, not terribly well. Reviewers are fond of writing that a play is “dated,” but that presupposes that audiences found the material compelling at some point after it premiered. But The Fatal Weakness never really gained traction, with critics or audiences, and its closing not long after its November 1946 Broadway opening hastened Kelly’s retirement. Its conflicts and themes haven’t dated with time—in fact, in certain ways, it feels like an uncanny barometer of America’s moral future, in terms of how it viewed the marriage bond—but, for once, there are cracks in Kelly’s dramatic masonry.

Perhaps the Mint saw in the play the same quality that its original star, Ina Claire, and the star of a 1976 PBS telecast, Eva Marie Saint, glimpsed: the opportunity for a middle-aged actress to shine, in a role of some complexity. Upper-class Ollie Ospenshade, married nearly three decades, is, as the play begins, afflicted with the “fatal weakness” of incurable romanticism—so much so that one of her favorite pastimes has become attending weddings, even those involving complete strangers.

Before long, it becomes clear that she may not be altogether clear-sighted about a situation close to home. Best female friend and perennial busybody Mabel Wentz has picked up scuttlebutt that Ollie’s husband Paul might be two-timing Ollie. In some of the most farcical minutes of the show, the two friends play amateur detective, conducting surveillance on Paul to see if he is indeed going to the golf course, as he claims.

A subplot involves the Ospenshades’ daughter Penny, a wife whose notions of proper marriage are being undermined by new pseudo-intellectual fads. She is very much her father’s girl, making Ollie wonder how much of Paul’s inclinations may have rubbed off on her.

The acting, as with prior Mint productions, is first-rate. Cliff Bemis, so good as an unbending but upright father in Philip Goes Forth, does well with another patriarch here, albeit one looser and more amiable. Victoria Mack makes Penny a fascinating compound of boredom, privilege and half-baked pretension. The Irish servant Anna becomes, in the hands of Patricia Kilgarriff, a droll prism for audiences wondering how the affluent can be so foolish.

Nor does any fault for this production lie with leading lady Kristin Griffith, who manages Ollie’s transition from flibbertigibbet to mature woman—and the play’s swing from comedy to drama—with manifest skill.

No, the fault with this comedy-drama lies not with any of the cast, nor even with director Jesse Marchese, but with Kelly himself, whose admirable attempts to circumvent clichéd contemporary views of marriage were undermined by sudden lurches in tone, not to mention plot points that strain credulity (e.g.,. a major transition in Ollie’s life transpires a dozen times quicker than it ever could in real life).

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