Only hard-core TCM geeks may recognize Samson Raphael son's name these days. A shame, since he wrote or adapted some of the best comedies of the 1930s and '40s for Ernst Lubitsch, including "Trouble in Paradise," "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Heaven Can Wait."
Put any of these movies at the top of your Netflix queue: It will erase from your memory Daniel Sullivan's take on Raphaelson's 1934 play "Accent on Youth."
Rarely have material, director and cast been as mismatched as they are in the leaden Manhattan Theatre Club production that opened last night.
Yes, there is a bittersweet undercurrent in the story of Steven Gaye (David Hyde Pierce), a successful playwright in his early 50s who finds love and inspiration -- and perhaps mistakes one for the other -- with a younger woman named Linda Brown (Mary Catherine Garrison).
But that melancholia is camouflaged beneath breezy elegance. These people would never let on that they're wounded -- it'd be uncouth. Unfortunately, Sullivan seems to have instructed his actors to act all emo and serious, ruining Raphaelson's effect.
Adopting a slow, ponderous tone, the two leads leech all the wit out of the text. They never find the right pace, and so when Steven and Linda engage in the rat-a-tat-tat exchanges that were the trademark of 1930s comedy, the dialogue grinds out at half-speed.
Hyde Pierce is so dour throughout that his simultaneous lifelessness is almost a relief -- it takes out some of the sting -- while Garrison, an appealing supporting performer in "Top Girls" and "Assassins," can't convincingly handle either her first-act mousy secretary or her second-act stage actress. These two never look as if they're getting any pleasure out of delivering their witticisms.
Steven and Linda's mutual attraction makes no sense, either. Linda may say, "We must let the world know we belong to each other," but it'd be swell if Hyde Pierce and Garrison could start by cluing in the audience.
The bummer of a set doesn't help. Maybe designer John Lee Beatty wanted to avoid the cliché of deco chrome and glass -- good for him. But his wood-paneled study, awash in shades of light brown and, er, dark brown, suggests a Midwestern lawyer's rec room rather than the lair of a Manhattan sophisticate.
What irks me most is that, in the right hands, a Raphaelson script can still hit plenty of grace notes. Three years ago, Elyse Singer mounted an inventive off-Broadway adaptation of "Trouble in Paradise" that was champagne to this sorry production's flat seltzer. And she did it on a budget that was a fraction of MTC's.
It was clear Singer truly loved the material. Here, it's as if Sullivan wanted "Accent on Youth" to be something it's not, while missing out on its riches.
Miscommunication is one of the building blocks of comedy, but not when it comes to staging it.
Age has not exactly withered “Accent on Youth,” a 1934 comedy by Samson Raphaelson about the storms besetting a May-December romance in the theater world. But it has not done this personable but minor play any great favors either.
“I’m 51,” says Steven Gaye, the playwright portrayed by David Hyde Pierce who represents the wintry half of the story’s romantic duo. “I can smell 60.”
In our era of trophy wives and proudly prowling cougars, of Viagra and Cialis and Botox and Restylane, 51-year-olds are more likely to be smelling 16. The dramatic question the play poses — can a man of such advanced years reasonably and respectably hope to find love with a woman half his age? — seems preposterous.
Still, the Manhattan Theater Club revival, which opened Wednesday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, offers cozy comforts understandably prized by a significant subset of Broadway theatergoers. Namely those for whom a couple of hours of light laughs in the presence of a likable star and some ogle-worthy period scenery will suffice for an afternoon of diversion. (Did I hear someone sighing over the ornate moldings on John Lee Beatty’s set, or was that me?)
Mr. Hyde Pierce, who won a Tony Award for his performance as a star-struck detective in the backstage murder-mystery musical “Curtains,” seems breezily at home in more or less the same milieu here. As a playwright who pens a drama about late-life romance and then finds himself caught up in a similar adventure offstage, Mr. Hyde Pierce hits his comic marks with the precision we’ve come to expect from his priceless turn on the long-running, exceptionally literate sitcom “Frasier.” (Now and forever in syndicated reruns, I hope.)
Steven has settled into a life of plush professional satisfaction and romantic isolation — “I’m a one-divorce man,” he quips — when he suddenly finds himself tugged back into the tides of romantic attraction. After an informal reading of his new play, “Old Love,” he receives a visit from an ex-flame, the actress Genevieve Lang (Rosie Benton), who doesn’t particularly want to play the lead in his play but wouldn’t mind taking that role in his life.
Just as Steven is about to book passage for a madcap adventure with Genevieve in Finland, however, his dutiful secretary, Linda Brown (Mary Catherine Garrison), confesses that she has long carried a torch for him. Suddenly, Steven’s doubts about the plausibility — and the tastefulness — of his drama about a love affair between an older man and a younger woman evaporate in the face of overwhelming evidence of his magnetic allure.
Comforting the sobbing Linda, Steven is forced to confess his own appeal. “Funny, when you get right down to it, I can’t think offhand of a man who could make you forget me,” he says. “I am a unique combination — witty, sensitive, imaginative, worldly, gay — and yet with a feeling for tragedy. ... And I know myself too well, I’ve been around too much, to deny that I’m charming.”
Mr. Hyde Pierce strikes the right note of self-mockery in this speech. He brings a light touch to the more expressly emotional passages in the play, too. After casting Linda as the leading lady in “Old Love” — making for a rather implausible career upgrade — Steven falls in love with her. But he is tempted to step aside and gallantly offer her the chance to find happiness with a more age-appropriate man, her love-struck co-star, the boyish leading man Dickie Reynolds (David Furr).
As Steven’s loyal butler, Flogdell, who himself strikes up an affair with a much younger woman, Charles Kimbrough (“Murphy Brown”) provides some tasty comic flavor. Byron Jennings is equally amusing as Frank Galloway, the older actor whose performance in Steven’s play reawakens his zest for the high life of a Broadway matinee idol, even one on whom evening is quickly descending.
The female roles are less stylishly played. Ms. Benton doesn’t bring enough sparkle to the worldly Genevieve, and the baby-faced Ms. Garrison seems too pouty and deficient in charm in the first act, when Linda tearily confesses her affection. Nor is she wholly convincing as a suddenly sophisticated actress. When she gives a passionate speech about missing the mad, maddening, glorious tumult of the stage in the second act, it fails to convince. Ms. Garrison’s wholesome sweetness seems more farm-friendly than Rialto-centric.
Raphaelson wrote many Broadway plays, including “The Jazz Singer,” but today is better known for his screenplays, the most celebrated being Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” and “The Shop Around the Corner,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” A more brisk, clipped cinematic style would probably benefit Mr. Sullivan’s direction of “Accent on Youth.” The second act is draggy. (The play was written in three acts, and here is played in two.)
But there are a few choice showbiz jokes to enliven the proceedings. The best belongs to Mr. Jennings’s Frank, musing on the box office fate of “Old Love,” which has changed all the players’ lives in one way or another.
“I thought either it would be a smash hit, like a Eugene O’Neill play,” he observes, “or a dreadful failure, like — like a Eugene O’Neill play. But who would have predicted that it would turn out just a show.”
Plus ça change. The current Broadway revival of O’Neill’s mythic potboiler “Desire Under the Elms” has provoked strongly divergent reactions. “Accent on Youth,” by contrast, is not going to fuel too many arguments. While perfectly amiable, it too is “just a show.”
"I'm 50," explained Jack Donaghy on a recent "30 Rock." "To put it in perspective, that's like 32 for ladies." The mating game has changed considerably since 1934, and silver foxes with trophy wives half their age have become almost commonplace. That makes the dilemma of Samson Raphaelson's "Accent on Youth" -- a sophisticated 53-year-old playwright dithering over romance with his 26-year-old secretary -- somewhat obsolete. Daniel Sullivan's spiffy production and David Hyde Pierce's effortless timing make the antiquated comedy tick by painlessly enough, but there's not much substance beneath its mild charms.
New Yorker Raphaelson chalked up some enduring screenwriting credits, notably multiple films with Ernst Lubitsch, including "Trouble in Paradise," "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Heaven Can Wait," as well as Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion." He also penned the original short story and play that became pioneering talkie "The Jazz Singer." But while "Accent on Youth" spawned three screen adaptations -- under its original title in 1935, as "Mr. Music" in 1950 and as "But Not for Me" in 1959 -- Raphaelson's plays now stay mostly on the shelf.
Sullivan's breezy staging of the first act, with its amusing dialogue and affectionate observation of quintessential theater types, makes you wonder why this contorted May-December romance doesn't turn up more often on the regional theater docket. But the strained plotting and longueurs of the second act, in which art imitates life and vice versa, make that absence clearer. Ditto the play's half-hearted bid to uncover a melancholy note in the trials of mid-life love. "You can't warm over cold mutton," says youthful secretary-turned-muse Linda (Mary Catherine Garrison). She's got a point.
After 19 hit comedies, Steven Gaye (Pierce) is trying his hand at tragedy with the bluntly titled "Old Love." But something about the story's convention-defying romance doesn't ring true, so when a former flame (Rosie Benton) gets rekindled, he prepares to abandon the play and flit with her to Europe. "For the first time in my life, I've stopped being a playwright," he says. "I'm a man, that's what I am." But when he gives notice to demure Linda, her declaration of long-suffering love provides the key to dignifying Steven's play with emotional truth.
Fast-forward seven months. The play has had a six-month Broadway run and is about to tour, with Linda as the love interest of a rejuvenated married man played by 60ish Frank Galloway (Byron Jennings). In an offstage ripple effect, Frank has created a new romantic type, drawing a string of ardent young female admirers, while even Steven's butler (Charles Kimbrough) is getting amorous with a 23-year-old maid. But just as Steven and Linda prepare to go public with their own cross-generational romance, the play's young leading man, Dickie Reynolds (David Furr), complicates things by falling hard for Linda. Uncertain of his own claim on her, Steven scripts a seduction scene for Dickie as a test.
Garrison is touching in Linda's big act-one speech, exposing the wounds of dutiful service to a man she loves who has ruined her chances of ever loving anyone else. But she's at sea trying to keep track of the impulsive character's wild inconsistencies. In less demanding roles, the other actors fare better, particularly the tirelessly chipper Kimbrough, who exudes period-appropriate class and correctness, and Lisa Banes in a small part as a cajoling actress.
However, it's Pierce who holds things more or less together. In his first nonmusical Broadway role since "The Heidi Chronicles" almost 20 years ago, the actor's sitcom experience shows in his throwaway ease with a choice line. He strikes a delightful balance of suave affability and vanity with a hint of rueful self-reflection, playfully coaxing laughs from Steven's penchant for channeling his writing craft into real life.
Manhattan Theater Club serves up an attractive souffle in John Lee Beatty's handsomely upholstered, wood-paneled single set (the sitting room/office of Steven's Manhattan duplex) and Jane Greenwood's typically stylish 1930s costumes. But in a season uncommonly stuffed with fresh, illuminating revivals of far more interesting works, this quaint subscription-lineup filler seems sure to slip by unnoticed.