Arlington’s American Century Theater, which for 20 years has dedicated itself to 20th-century American plays, is taking its last bow after this season. But the company’s final act is off to a troubled start with The Seven Year Itch, an outdated, problematic work that does not instill deep longing for the glory days of mid-century American theater.
For its season opener, American Century chose an encore of a revival it staged in 2002, of a play that has already enjoyed a long public shelf life thanks to its film adaptation and Marilyn Monroe’s white dress. Few would begrudge a modestly sized company from taking a final opportunity to revisit an old favorite, even if doing so means casting aside its own mission statement—to “revive worthy plays and musicals at risk of being forgotten.” Instead, just consider the play, which in many ways begs to be forgotten. George Axelrod’s 1952 comedy about a married middle-aged lout who lusts after his gorgeous 22-year-old neighbor was a taboo-buster back in its day for discussing a psychological motivation for adultery. Today it’s a nasty thing, misogyny dressed up as whimsical nostalgia.
On a gigantic apartment set where the actors are sometimes blocked far from audience sight lines, Bruce Alan Rauscher is a manic presence as paranoid, delusional doofus Richard Sherman, an unhappy book advertiser whose wife and son have journeyed away for the summer. Richard fills his silences with tales of the women he could have slept with, if not for his wife (Emily Morrison, getting good laughs). He has a chance encounter with the Girl (Carolyn Kashner, nailing the character’s accidental-on-purpose sultriness), a nude model subletting in his building. This leads to obsession, psychological grief, and a drunken assault on her person. As the two grow closer, Richard yammers to himself, flop-sweats, and has dull romance-novel fantasies over an interminable three acts.
Like its hero, the play has aged poorly. What was transgressive satire in the ’50s now feels like slimy male wish-fulfillment. Richard continually pushes the Girl to drink more, at one point filling her champagne glass over her express pleas of “no.” Later, when Richard discusses his actions with a male psychologist, he’s advised to vigorously deny everything: “It’s simply your word against hers,” the doctor says, also joking that Richard could murder the Girl to hide her from his wife (ha ha). And then there’s the Girl herself, a cipher who’s never afforded the courtesy of a name or motivation beyond making Richard feel better about himself. (Granted, that last point still holds true about the women in many modern comedies.) Rauscher and Kashner do their best to sidestep the harsh anachronism, playing Richard as a harmless wet noodle and the Girl as all-too-aware of her own sexuality. It’s not enough.
Maybe in 1952, or even 2002, The Seven Year Itch was about adultery. But in the context of American Century’s final season, it’s about something else entirely: validating a belief that young people can find aging men—and, as long as we’re playing psychologist, aging plays about aging men—attractive. Not like this, please.
“The Seven Year Itch” is on stage at 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. $32-$40. (703) 998-4555. americancentury.org