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A CurtainUp Review
Ring Round the Moon
By Elyse Sommer
There's an old cliche about good ideas striking in two places at the same time. With Ring Round the Moon we see that cliche in reverse. Both the giant nonprofit Lincoln Center organization and a small company aptly called Bare Stage this season decided that bringing back Christopher Fry's adaptation of Jean Anouilh's romantic comedy was a fine idea.
After all the Roundabout Theater successfully revived Anouilh's The Rehearsal some seasonsago Ring Round The Moon is like that play set in a French chateau (though some forty years earlier in 1912). It seems to have everything in place for a fairytale full of lovers who won't live happily ever after until the playwright has propelled them across a complicated trail of mixups and misunderstandings. It's a cross between Cinderella and Pygmalion. Cinderella in this case is a poor but highly principled dancer hired by a cynical and manipulative young aristocrat to break up his less worldly and love smitten brother's engagement. This puppetmaster on whose string she dangles is an identical twin.
The Bare Stage revival was a disaster in that it did not have the human or staging resources to give this very artificial drawing room comedy a fighting chance. The Lincoln Center production is as stylish as can be. Nothing has been spared. Director Gerald Gutierrez has assembled a first rate cast. John Lee Beatty's airy winter garden where the tangled relationships unfold is a feast for the eyes, as are John David Ridge's costumes. The actors wrest all the fun possible from Anouilh's world of artifice and illusions. Nevertheless the final fireworks once again come none too soon. Purity of spirit triumphs over blasé sophistication but so does heavy-handed farce triumph over delicately light comedy. Mr. Gutierrez who succeeded admirably in lifting The Heiress to new heights has failed to keep this souffle of a play from falling.
The two and a half hours do offer many rewards. To begin with there's Marian Seldes as the bon mot wielding autocrat of the chateau. She is a comedienne who can speak reams with a look and gesture, and does so here. Madame Desmermortes may not be able to walk but she's got enough sharp-tongued wit to raise the energy level of the proceedings whenever she sails on to the stage in her wheel chair.
Stephens manages his double role as the sophisticated Hugo and his somewhat sappy brother Frederic with marvelous timing. As he dashes backstage and reemerges without so much as a hair changed he never leaves you in doubt as to who's on. His sleight-of-persona is the evening's overriding joke and Stephens amusingly keeps his cover to the final curtain call.
The minor roles are also in good hands. Gretchen Egolf is a lovely Isabelle, Frances Conroy brings just enough poignant yearning to Madame's faded long time companion and Candy Buckley deftly camps up Lady India who cheats on her rich old lover, Messerschmann (Fritz Weaver), with his secretary (Derek Smith). Weaver and Haviland Morris (his daughter Diana and the object of Frederic's affections) add the one serious note to the otherwise fluffy proceedings. They are the only Jews allowed into this closed world -- their entré being Messerschmann's wealth. Unfortunately Anouilh has drawn them as the most stereotypical of stereotypes -- Diana as the self-hating Jew and her father as a man who's never seen a dollar he can't turn into a fortune. Not even the excellent Weaver can keep the inherent anti-Semitism from overwhelming Anouilh's attempt to demonstrate its evil.
In summary, this is clearly a superior experience from the earlier and short-lived Off-Broadway revival. However, its reason for being even in this elegant format remains an idea better diverted to a more enduring divertissement.
A postscript for theatrical trivia collectors:
In an article in the always informative "Lincoln Center Theater Review" Christopher Fry explained how he came up with the English substitution for the original title, L'Invitation au Chateau. The opening of the play's London production was close at hand and he still hadn't submitted anything. Then he remembered an amateur pantomine, Cinderella, he had written for a hospital many years earlier. Perhaps it came to mind because Anouilh's play has a Cinderella element. At any rate, that pantomine includeded a song with the lines "We shall be wed/With a ring round the moon."