The Pulitzer-winning author of Proof has been little seen on the New York stage in the past decade, outside of a pair of one-acts and a one-man show. Now David Auburn has adapted and quasi-updated The New York Idea, a mothballed turn-of-the-century drawing-room comedy by Langdon Mitchell. (A mostly and justly forgotten dramatist.)
The plot vaguely resembles Private Lives (though it predates the Noel Coward classic by a quarter-century): Feisty Cynthia (Jaime Ray Newman, sunny and amenable in a sphinxlike role) loves the ponies, the betting window at Belmont, and lightning jags of excitement in her life. But after a stormy marriage to the slightly hapless John (a droll and controlled Jeremy Shamos, making strong sense of a weak character), Cynthia’s now in the market for a more tranquil union. Stuffy jurist Philip (Michael Countryman, tastefully embalmed) fits the bill all too well: He’s practically tranquilized (“I … I esteem you,” he gushes to Cynthia, in a rare moment of unguarded passion) and can’t stand even the slightest rattling of his well-appointed Washington Square cage. Too bad: This is a comedy of manners, after all, and cages will and must be rattled.
But never too jarringly, which is both the pleasure and the chief limitation of this indubitably charming, exceedingly mild entertainment. The original play was apparently a bit of a screed against the “New York idea of marriage,” to wit: “Marry for whim and leave the rest to luck and the divorce courts!” Auburn’s gutted the script of all such regressive fustian, but in its place, he suggests nothing more thrilling, dramatic, or socially destabilizing than gentle rom-com symmetries: The right people eventually find each other, having done their farcical damnedest to ignore the obvious. Newman and Shamos do us the honor of acting like adults, and their will-they-or-won’t-they is more affecting than we’d imagine — they cover effectively for the yawning vacancy of their roles. And when necessary, they agreeably cede the stage to the show’s chief clowns, Philip’s maniacal, fashionably mod first wife Vida (Francesca Faridany, just a click away from doing Norma Desmond) and a shameless British Don Juan by the name of Wilfred Cates-Darby (Rick Holmes, all gleeful, innocent wickedness). Mark Brokaw never lets matters get wildly out of hand, which keeps the romance surprisingly grounded — and lowers the ceiling on the show’s flights of comic fancy, too. The chief mystery of the show remains: Why this show? “You married me for nothing, divorced me for nothing, because you are nothing,” John spits at Cynthia, in the show’s most uncharacteristically devastating moment. He accuses her of being “a collection of caprices,” an idea worth picking at today, when we’re all in danger of being reduced to word clouds of personal-preference data. But Cynthia has no reply for him — not from 1906, not from 2011 — and neither does this adorably inessential little play.