Bound to Tradition
Helene Hanff's autobiographical 84, Charing Cross Road is a traditional bibliophile's dream. A working-class Yank who couldn't afford more than a year of college, Hanff was a self-taught writer who adored great books written by dead white guys. Across the Atlantic was Frank Doel, a stodgy but quaintly sweet English bookseller. The two never met but somehow managed to spark a long-term relationship through letters, packages and books. Their 20-year correspondence was captured forever in Hanff's story, which was eventually adapted into a successful play by James Roose-Evans and then into an even more successful 1986 film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
These letters have, once again, been pulled out of their dusty shoeboxes for A.D. Players' handsome if somewhat musty and unoriginal production of Roose-Evans's play. The stage is strewn with dark, dank books filled with what are supposed to be the uncut texts of John Donne, the Greek New Testament and the Latin Bible. These are the writers and books that Hanff (played by Jeannette Clift George) craves but can't find in New York City, forcing her to look overseas to Frank Doel (Jim Bernhard). It's 1949. Hanff is a struggling author who spends her days trying to get published while summarizing other people's scripts for money.
Intrigued by an ad she finds in a New York City newspaper, she writes to the very English establishment Marks and Co., in hopes of finding good, cheap second-hand copies of her beloved books. Doel and everyone else at the shop is happy to oblige the American, since hardcover books still abound on the British Isles, where practically everything else, from sweets to meats, has been rationed out of existence. Besides, Hanff's letters are irrepressibly witty. When she asks for a book of love poems, she demands "no Keats or Shelley"; she wants "a poet who can make love without slobbering." And when Doel, in his initial letter, greets her with the very formal "Madame," she responds with a snappy one-liner, saying that she hopes "Madame doesn't mean the same" in England as it does in America.
Quite the quipster, she fascinates her newfound British friends. At Christmastime she seals their affections by sending a care package full of all the things they still can't get in their postwar country: A few pots of ham and some fresh eggs are all it takes to win these hearts. Soon Doel is sending her books of Elizabethan poetry, while fellow shopkeeper Cecily Farr (Shondra Marie) ships over a recipe for Yorkshire pudding.
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As the story marches through the years, we watch Hanff's career progress. She eventually moves from script summaries to script writing for such shows as The Adventures of Ellery Queen and The Hallmark Hall of Fame. The bookstore, of course, hardly changes at all. Cecily leaves to follow her husband to the Middle East and then to Australia. Doel (who's very married) has children who grow up, go to college, then on to jobs. All in all, not much happens to these people. They are, after all, a writer and a bookseller, and true to stereotype, their lives are about as exciting and unusual as that potted meat Hanff keeps mailing overseas.
Thus, it is up to the director and actors to infuse these mildly eccentric characters with enough lively quirkiness to sustain two hours of theater. Certainly George is an energetic bubble of fists and grins as she moves about the small corner of the stage that has been partitioned off as Hanff's cramped New York apartment. Dressed in funky lace-up flats and sensible slacks, she looks every bit the New York writer type, so much so that it hardly matters that the working-class East Coast accent she affects sounds vague to the point of distraction. She shoulders most of the lines and is more than up to the challenge. Bernhard's Doel is as charming as they come. His wonderfully refined and demure carriage, gait and voice make him and his character hugely likable.
Unfortunately these actors aren't provided much assistance from director Beth Sanford, whose predictable interpretation does nothing to enliven this sentimental tale. The actors stay in their corners of the stage, constricted as if they were pages forever bound in a book. Because George has little room to stretch out, she often climbs on the furniture or onto the kitchen counter in strange, overly choreographed gestures. Even weirder, a major portion of the stage has been taken up with the bookstore, where nobody does much of anything except peer into large dark ledgers and the boxes that Hanff keeps packing off.
The real irony here is that in the end there is something too careful, too old-school, for this production to say anything new about our universal love of tradition, which can be found in all those great old books by dead white guys.
84, Charing Cross Road runs through Sunday, June 11, at A.D. Players, 2710 West Alabama, (713)526-2721. $18.
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