Eighteenth-century playwright and novelist Frances Burney was one wildly famous blue-stockinged dame. Her social satires garnered her a serious social life and helped her procure a hobnobber's dream job: After her second novel came out, she was appointed "second keeper to the robes of Queen Charlotte." She was even admired by, and inspired, such important satirists as Jane Austen. But while Austen's work has survived the centuries to earn a place among the stacks at popular bookstores even as it makes Hollywood tons of dough, Frances Burney's work, so popular in its day, has been relegated to the academic dust of long-forgotten library shelves. In fact, her play The Witlings, currently on the boards at Main Street Theater, "languished in manuscript until it was published in the early 1990s in an anthology of 17th- and 18th-century plays by women," according to the folks at Main Street.
Perhaps this play "languished" with good reason. For though the more erudite among us might adore a fat brown book full of antiquated, long-forgotten plays full of long-forgotten problems (such as what to do when one's fortune is lost by a foolish banker) most folks would rather spend the three-plus hours it takes to sit through this play seeing Titanic, or even napping -- as some playgoers actually did during Saturday night's performance.
It's not that this play is terrible. In fact, this sly, sideways look at wealthy English society has some very funny moments. But problems in the script abound. Cecilia and Beaufort are lovers who spend the play trying to get back together after their plans to marry are almost thwarted. Lady Smatter, Beaufort's small-minded but very rich aunt, causes all the young lovers' problems. Beaufort's fortune is controlled by his aunt, who won't give it to him if he marries the financially ruined Cecilia. What's a wealthy young socialite to do? Unfortunately, both Cecilia and Beaufort (played by Sara Macaluso and Dominique Gerard) are cardboard-flat characters who have no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever -- except perhaps that they are both terribly attractive and proud as lions.
The play's central story is unhappily reduced to a dull and predictable plot line. There is never, at any point during the night, any question as to whether or not these lovers will end up together. Thus, the supporting characters, who are also stereotypes, must generate the play's tension.
And this company of actors makes a valiant fight. Lady Smatter, played with lots of camp by Che Moody, runs about with stuffed birds decorating her big white wig as she foolishly quotes Pope and Johnson, though she's never read them. She also runs roughshod over a reading club that she's put together for herself and fellow dilettantes. A favorite member, Mr. Dabbler (note the cheeky metaphoric names), writes bad poetry, which he reads at every possible chance. Robert Leeds gives an over-the-top-silly and quite funny performance as the red-lipped bad writer who gets his ready-made rhymes from a how-to book. Mrs. Sapient, another of the club's witless readers (full of her own foolish opinions) is played admirably by Patti Bean.
Mr. Censor (again, note the name) is the only character other than the lovers who has a backbone of integrity to guide him. He has read Pope and Johnson, and he's rich, and he saves the marriage in the end. I suppose the message is that if you actually read all those old, thoughtful books, you'll also learn a thing or two about integrity. It's a romantic notion -- but of course, it's also a ridiculous and utterly elitist premise; lots of well-read folks are weasels. As Mr. Censor, Joel Stark has a suitably stiff backbone and a constantly thoughtful look on his face.
The strongest performance of the night, though, came from Nathalie Cunningham, who plays Mrs. Voluble, the owner of the rooming house in which Mr. Dabbler lives. Mrs. Voluble is just one of the loud, gossipy, working-class wenches who populate this play (in this satire on class, everyone looks bad). But through her theatrical magic, Nathalie Cunningham manages to retrieve from this stereotype an originality that is both dead-on truthful and very funny.
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Unfortunately, even the lovely performances can't haul this dinosaur of a play into the 1990s. In addition to the fact that the plot line is mindlessly predictable, the sheer length of the script is overwhelming. Three hours of gossipy chattering is simply too much to bear. Even the cast seems to know that the play is too long. The actors race so quickly through the first 45 minutes of dialogue that it's often difficult to catch all that is said.
The direction, generally stiff and uninspired, doesn't help matters. Actor after actor stands with balletlike poise, hands held neatly together, facing the audience straight out to recite his or her lines; it's as if they've all been grabbed off some 18th-century rhetorical style stage. The sets are so inadequate as to be distracting, and the lighting adds nothing to the feel of the production.
Most writers who are popular among their contemporaries don't last through the ages. Frances Burney, famous as she was, might best be admired for the way in which she shaped Jane Austen's imagination. Sadly, The Witlings proves that not everything from the past is worth exhuming.
The Witlings plays through March 15 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.