A program note refers to this sprawling, ramshackle edifice as “Lillian Hellman’s Big Chill,” and that seems apt enough, so let’s attempt to forget that James Lipton—yes, the boot-licker who hosts Inside the Actors Studio—made his Broadway debut as the crypto-queer Louisiana kid who anchors one of the play’s four overlapping plots. Hellman, who’s better known for her gay-panic potboilers (The Children’s Hour) and bloodthirsty anti-capitalist melodramas (The Little Foxes), brings a double handful of floundering characters together late one Louisiana summer to confront their fuckups and their failures and the endings of their illusions. And after three acts and two intermissions, you too may be channeling William Hurt: “Wise up, folks. We’re all alone out there, and tomorrow we’re going out there again.”
Director Steven Scott Mazzola steers the evening carefully, though, making sure it’s always just on the generous side of grim, and there are laughs enough to make that pocket flask strictly optional. Most of them come courtesy of Linda High, a shoo-in for Best Crank in Show: She’s playing that crypto-queer kid’s rich old grandmother, and she knows in her bones that all Southern matrons want to be so rich and so old that they don’t have to pretend anymore that most people aren’t a bunch of damn fools. High has a high old time, stalking imperiously around Beth Baldwin’s seedily spacious living-room set with a cane and a permascowl, barking wisecracks and putdowns in a voice that suggests a chain-smoking duck. With an attitude problem. And a dead-on Southern accent.
Step back and think about it, and The Autumn Garden turns out to be a fairly sophisticated study in compromises and coming to terms, a psychological group portrait of a thoroughly messed-up bunch. (Who stand in, let’s note, for a goodly number of the types we all know and love: climbers, posers, moralists, fitters-in, compromisers, malcontents drinking to drown the courage of their convictions.) But fear not: As a yarn, it can be pretty entertaining stuff. That young man (Joshua Drew) and the boarding-house proprietor’s beautiful French niece (Maura Stadem) are planning to think about perhaps setting a date for what might turn out to be a wedding. All the tentativeness has to do with her not being sure whether she wants a husband or just some independence from her aunt and his not being sure whether he wants to get married or sail off on a six-month tour of Europe with a social-climbing young novelist (think early Capote) who never appears but whose startling plots keep everyone whispering.
Meanwhile, a taciturn World War II general (Mark Lee Adams) does his best to ignore his flibbertigibbet wife (Annie Houston), except when he’s trying to convince her that no, really, it’s time for a divorce, and a showboat portrait-painter (Jim Jorgenson) returns from a long stint in Paris with his Brahmin wife (Mary McGowan), who does her very best not to be troubled by the nervous enthusiasm of their hostess (Deborah Rinn Critzer), to whom of course the artist long ago proposed marriage. Looking on with a certain suspicion—of pretty much everybody but especially of the portraitist—is the bachelor banker (William Aitken) who’s been keeping company with the boarding-house keeper since shortly after the painter dumped her for the Boston heiress.
There’s a blowup involving the social-climbing novelist, the boy’s appearance-conscious mom (Jan Boulet), and the boy’s considerable allowance, another involving the painter (intoxicated) and the French girl (she unsuspectingly tucks the cad in), and a giant one involving how that’s gonna play with the neighbors. By the time the dust has settled, the maybe-one-day-wedding is definitely not gonna happen, and the painter and his wife are definitely splitting this time. No, wait, maybe they’re not. Also, the general has definitely gotten his wife to agree to a divorce. No, wait, she’s having a health crisis, so all bets are off. Maybe. Got all that?
It all moves a little too slowly in the American Century Theater’s production to be quite as deliciously anarchic as it might sound. But Mazzola attends lovingly to the textures of the play, and under all the surface soap opera, Hellman’s characters turn out to be pretty richly conceived. There’s a lovely moment early on, when Mazzola frames the French girl and the artist’s wife in a doorway, which underscores how clearly they’re going to come to see each other before the night’s over—and how much of the older woman’s heartache is just waiting to enclose the younger, if she doesn’t find a way out.
Much of the play is like that, subtle and bittersweet, and sometimes it’s downright pessimistic about how people negotiate relationships and why. But when it’s done, when all the summer boarders are gone and the hostess and her banker are left alone, blinders off, there’s a terribly forlorn, terribly mature kind of hope on offer: The others’ futures look likely to be as dishonest and as compromised as the pasts we’ve just watched collide, but maybe now, knowing more about themselves than they ever really wanted to, these two at least will figure out a way to just be.CP