Review of The Age of Innocence, Hartford Stage
Edith Wharton understood well the humor and the pathos of those conditioned by the rigors of the Gilded Age in “Old New York.” Her eye and, particularly, her ear for how the upper-crust navigated delicate social situations permitted her to paint their portraits with considerable vivacity and knowledge. And The Age of Innocence is her greatest novel. Dramatized on the stage in her own day, it was made into a very faithful film by Martin Scorsese in the early 1990s, and has been adapted to the stage in our day by Douglas McGrath (the filmmaker of Emma), and, directed by Doug Hughes, is in its world premiere at Hartford Stage.
The story concerns Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a young lawyer ostensibly in love with lovely May Welland (Helen Cespedes), both the products of families that pride themselves on their social standing. They seem particularly well-matched, and yet their elders—especially Mrs. Welland (Deirdre Madigan)—prefer to delay the marriage. The couple are almost ready to announce their engagement when May’s cousin, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), returns to New York, fleeing an unhappy marriage to Count Olenski, a Polish nobleman. For reasons of family solidarity, Archer finds himself compelled—due to the air of scandal that hangs about his fiancée’s cousin—to speed up the announcement of the engagement and, eventually, the settling of a wedding date, all the while dallying in an increasingly passionate flirtation with Madame Olenska.
In McGrath’s adaptation, the action is framed for us by a more elderly Archer (Boyd Gaines), who looks back with a knowing indulgence on his youthful infatuation with Ellen. The tone of his narration isn’t nearly as arch as Wharton’s narrator can be, but it goes a long way to make the play feel more contemporary than the novel. The novel’s narration is focused almost entirely through Archer, so having him reflect on his past in this way corresponds to the novel’s manner of being both in the story and above it. It’s a device that lets us enjoy our distance from the action, and to counter the naïve Archer with Gaines’ wonderfully dry view.
Though the focus on Archer is key to what Wharton wrote, it’s also the element that might make the play feel a little too male-dominated for our times. The women are as Archer knows them, not as they know themselves. A constraint, yes, but it lets us see how much he misses, gets wrong, and mismanages. His is a story of an effort to be original in a world that only values tradition, but it’s also the story of how a man in love wants to cling to his illusions about the object—or, here, objects—of his desire. We—and, in age, Archer—learn how the women in the case control so very much without him quite seeing how they do. The “innocence” is entirely Archer’s, much as he might consider himself a worldly man.
The cast and staging of the play are fully engaging, and the adaptation plays a bit like the kind of plays that Archer and his crowd flocked to see: it’s a story of a certain love—the approved one—triumphant, and of another love—the “wrong” one—become a romantic possibility never fulfilled. The whirl of Archer’s pre- and post-nuptial affair holds our attention because it is so very much like a play within a play. The manners of the time are all about maintaining a show and speaking according to a script that rarely reveals real feelings or thoughts.
Fans of the novel (or of the film) will find certain characters rather flattened here, such as the priggish Larry Lefferts (Tony Ward), and the elusive yet ubiquitous Julius Beaufort (Nick Wyman), though certain elements—like the austere views of Mr. and Mrs. Van der Luyden (Tony Ward and Deirdre Madigan)—come through entertainingly. Darrie Lawrence’s every scene as Mrs. Manson Mingott, the dowager empress of this society, is a delight and all too brief.
Andrew Veenstra is a young heartthrob of an Archer, fully living up to the obtuseness the role entails but rather a harder sell as the self-examining aesthete of Wharton’s conception. Sierra Boggess is a Countess Olenska who seems thoroughly American and, unlike Wharton’s vision, untainted by the wicked old Europe she has lived in since shortly after her coming out. Boggess and Veenstra sing a lovely duet of “Beautiful Dreamer,” however unlikely such an act would be for the Countess. May, we find, is unable to sing the part with the same lyricism, a strike against her. Helen Cespedes comes off as closest to Wharton’s sense of her character, as her May is both girlish and fully able to wield the upper hand through a successful stratagem.
John Lee Beatty’s set, with its array of transparent doors, makes the most of Hartford Stage's wide open spaces, and Linda Cho’s costumes regale us with the fashions of the times. The world of The Age of Innocence is one in which all is show and that makes for an entertaining spectacle. What’s not so clear is what we gain by contemplating such romantic misalignment in our age. A live pianist onstage adds color to the vestiges of romance that still move Archer as “the old gentleman,” offering a chastened remembrance of things past.
The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
Adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath
Directed by Doug Hughes
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Choreographer: Peter Pucci; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist
Cast: Sierra Boggess, Helen Cespedes, Boyd Gaines, Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, Haviland Morris, Sara Norton, Dan Owens, Josh Salt, Sara Schwab, Andrew Veenstra, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Tony Ward, Nick Wyman
April 5-May 6, 2108