August 31, 2012
TT: Boys will be boys
In today's Wall Street Journal I file the first of two reports from Canada's Shaw Festival. This one is about a rare revival of Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears. Here's an excerpt.
* * *
Terence Rattigan is best known--entirely known, if truth be told--for his understated yet emotionally fraught dramas of middle-class inhibition. Most playgoers have forgotten (assuming that they ever knew it) that he first made his name in England with "French Without Tears," a meringue-light romantic comedy whose 1936 West End premiere came off so spectacularly that the show, whose cast included the not-yet-famous Rex Harrison, Trevor Howard and Jessica Tandy, ran for 1,039 performances. It's as though Arthur Miller had launched his career not with "All My Sons" but a six-door farce.
While "French Without Tears" continues to be revived in England, it has yet to make an impression on this side of the Atlantic. The 1937 Broadway transfer got decent reviews but closed after an undistinguished three-month run, and the subsequent film version (which starred Ray Milland) is known only to historians of British cinema. So far as I know, "French Without Tears" hasn't been produced by any professional theater company in America since its original Broadway run.
That's why I went up to Canada's Shaw Festival to see that company's ultra-rare revival. Could the author of "The Deep Blue Sea" and "Separate Tables" really have known how to split the sides of a matinée crowd? The answer--as one of Mr. Rattigan's more decorous characters might have put it--is decidedly in the affirmative. Not only is "French Without Tears" as funny as anything by Noël Coward or Alan Ayckbourn, but Kate Lynch's staging is as good as it could possibly be....
Part of what makes "French Without Tears" so interesting is that for all the play's fetching frivolity, Mr. Rattigan's characters are neither as simple nor carefree as they look. His "sophisticated" young gentlemen in particular are sexually naïve almost-boys who are all too obviously afraid of women. Even the Hon. Alan Howard (pitch-perfectly played by Ben Sanders), who purports to be the very model of a suave intellectual, is defenseless in the face of a full-court press by the scheming Diana. Moreover, they--and we--are well aware that Europe is on the verge of turning itself upside down, and our consciousness of the coming collapse of the old order that spawned Mr. Rattigan's characters lends a sharp tang of melancholy to their lunatic cavorting....
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
Posted August 31, 2012 12:00 AM