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Of all the tasks confronting a fledgling D.C. theater, the most daunting must be identifying a theatrical niche that actually needs filling. With the metro area boasting some four dozen professional stages ranging from nonprofit repertory troupes to dinner theaters to commercial touring houses, and specializing variously in agitprop, absurdism, Sondheim musicals, classical, experimental, bilingual, and bisexual texts, new plays, old plays, African-American plays, Jewish plays, and even in one case, lesser-known plays by well-known authors, a new company has its work cut out for it. Considering that more than 200 professional productions are mounted annually hereabouts, just finding a script that hasn’t been produced in the last five years becomes a challenge.
American Century Theater (ACT) has found one that hasn’t been mounted in 50 years—S.N. Behrman’s romantic comedy, The Pirate—and patrons who can stifle the gag reflex inspired by Vincente Minnelli’s musical screen adaptation are likely to have a decent time rediscovering it. The tale of a touring 19th-century thespian who romances a married woman while blackmailing the buccaneer-turned-banker she married, The Pirate isn’t high-powered enough to buckle anyone’s swash, but in ACT’s production, it’s amusing in an old-fashioned, pleasantly literate way.
S(amuel) N(athaniel) Behrman was best known in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s as a purveyor of bright high comedy in which well-bred characters bantered endlessly in exquisitely decorated drawing rooms. Unlike his chief American competitor—Philip Barry, who penned such characteristic examples of the form as Holiday (currently being revived on Broadway) and The Philadelphia Story—Behrman tended to color his plays’ badinage with leftish social commentary. His late-’30s successes, End of Summer (about romance be-
tween a millionairess and a young radical) and Wine of Choice (in which several rich men try to dissuade a protégée from marrying a Communist), are typical of his method.
There are traces of class consciousness in The Pirate, but only traces, as it was designed to help its author bounce back from a career dip he had actually predicted in his best play, No Time for Comedy. That 1939 work—about the attempts of a successful comedy writer to write serious plays—was followed by a disastrous serious effort, The Talley Method, after which a quick comic fix seemed called for.
Written as a commercial vehicle for the Lunts in 1942, The Pirate is the sort of venerable romp that might have been penned a full century earlier—a tale of pompous Santo Domingan gentry, lusty serv-
ants, wives with nothing to do but read buccaneer novels, and a threadbare touring theatrical troupe that spices things up with magic tricks and a bit of juggling. When Serafin, the star of this touring troupe, falls for Manuela, the bored wife of the town dullard, convinces her he’s a famous pirate, and blackmails her husband, who is really…but why am I recounting all this? Plot isn’t the point of such confections. Never was. At the play’s Broadway premiere, the New York Times reported that it was “not out of Mr. Behrman’s usual drawer,” but allowed as how the Lunts (as the touring star and the dullard’s wife) and a boisterous production redeemed the evening. The show ran for about six months, and was adapted six years later as a lavishly leaden MGM musical featuring Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and an incongruously bouncy score by Cole Porter.
The current ACT production hasn’t quite got the local equivalent of the Lunts, or even of Kelly and Garland, but it does manage to field a pair of appealing leads and four or five capable supporting players. That’s out of a cast of 24, but even so, it’s a formidable accomplishment for a first-season troupe.
The company’s surest asset is Amy McWilliams as Manuela, the spunky wife who married the town’s richest man so her avaricious mother (Donna Migliaccio in fierce chatterbox mode) would be taken care of. McWilliams somehow manages to appear sweetly ingenuous, wide-eyed, sassy, and pert without turning her scenes saccharine. And her abrupt way of dismissing the men around her has just the right touch of schoolmarm to halt Peter J. Mendez’s childish Serafin in his tracks. An overgrown adolescent, this mountebank thinks nothing of walking a tightrope to his beloved’s balcony, throwing its doors open grandly, and introducing himself to Manuela and her guests by saying, “I sense in this room an atmosphere of strangulated discomfort….These must be relatives.” Mendez delivers such lines with panache, and though he’s not a very subtle woo-pitcher, he matches McWilliams’ keen sense of timing in their verbal sparring.
Unfortunately, the dullard behind whose back these two are trysting is played with whiny bluster and not much else by David Jourdan, so the evening’s a tad unbalanced. Not that there would ever be much doubt about the outcome, but there should be more about how the playwright will get there. Subsidiary performances range from strenuous to workmanlike, with Migliaccio’s effortlessly vulgar harridan a welcome exception. Mims Mattair’s staging is clean and spare, something that might also be said of her design efforts (she created the show’s simple setting, and some of the costumes). Her work is new to me, as is that of nearly everyone in ACT’s cast.
When this company arrived on the scene earlier this year with a briskly authoritative mounting of Reginald Rose’s rarely produced Twelve Angry Men, its stated aim was exploring neglected works by American writers. An unstated second agenda—the enlarging of the area’s acting, design, and directing pools—was evidenced through employment of personnel whose previous experience had been largely in community theater. That second agenda has obvious potential drawbacks, and they were more than evident in ACT’s second production, an embarrassingly amateurish The Children’s Hour that made Lillian Hellman’s already dated script seem exceptionally flat-footed. ACT’s latest effort falls somewhere between the first two in terms of production quality—no surprise really, considering its large cast and the company’s limited resources. Still, when a talent like McWilliams surfaces, it’s easy to overlook some surrounding clutter.
What’s more valuable, frankly—at least for students of passé forms of comedy—is the chance to hear Behrman’s glib chatter thrown around a stage again. He may not have been as deft as Noel Coward, but he had a knack for subverting clichés and a rep for leaving no retort unhoned. How many playwrights, after all, would have a character shout “Cobra’s peepers!” after a bad roll of the dice?CP