BOTTOM LINE: Despite a delightful lead performance by Francesca Faridany, Atlantic Theater Company's revival of turn-of-the-century farce The New York Idea leaves a person thinking that some ideas are better left unrealized.
Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint the missing ingredient that makes an evening of theater a near-miss rather than a winner. The New York Idea should be a no-brainer for a night of old-school theatrical fun, as it is adapted by David Auburn of Proof fame (the original script was written by Langdon Mitchell, hugely popular in his day but largely forgotten with the passage of time), directed by Broadway and off Broadway veteran Mark Brokaw, and cast with a stable of actors whose resumes are chock full of great credits. Even the charmingly unrenovated Lucille Lortel, a miniscule proscenium theater with red velvet wallpaper and orchestra seating whose back row is no more than 20 feet from the stage, promises to transport the nostagically-inclined to an era when a theater ticket was expected to provide a simple night of diversion and nothing more. The script, a simple comedy of manners featuring several erstwhile divorcees and their various lovers, provides the necessary plot machinations, stock characters and zingy one-liners to make it a perfectly good vehicle for delight. Unfortunately, the whole production seems to be running on ethel rather than the necessary high-octane fuel. In other words it is missing that single key element necessary to period comedy: joy. This production chugs and sputters along its domestic little road, functioning more like an oldsmobile station wagon in need of a tune-up than the zippy little convertible it needs to be to transform the twists and turns of a predictable comedic plot into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Oh well.
Luckily, the plodding progress of the play is quickened and invigorated every time Francesca Faridany enters as the rebellious and life-loving character Vida Philimore. Ms. Faridany captures the heightened theatricality and sense of artifice necessary to pull off a play of this style, and she seems to be having fun to boot. However, the petite proportions of the Lucille Lortel cramp her style a bit; she is the type of actress, and hers is the type of role, that requires space. As captivating as she is, Ms. Faridany is stuck in a play with quite a few other characters. Her castmates, though able-bodied, never match her energy or her verve, and in an ensemble comedy, one woman just can't go it alone.
I would like to read the original script, to develop more of an understanding of what David Auburn might have added to the play. Did he try to update the dialogue? It still seems dated, but somehow not dated enough. This kind of period piece, which relies on hopelessly outmoded social conventions to provide the humor, really shouldn't be modernized too much. It is best left as a delightful remnant of the past, one that can be enjoyed for the universals of human experience it elucidates, but also appreciated as a quaint relic from a bygone era. Did Auburn rework the plot? If so, there are further improvements that might have been made. The climactic scene, when the rightful pair of lovers is finally united, comes with very little effort on the part of the characters. It is too clean, too easy; there is not enough calamity, misunderstanding, or strife for it to matter much when things are put right in the end.
Overall, it is easy to imagine why everyone involved thought reviving this play and putting together this particular team to do it seemed like a good idea. You can see what the production was driving at: a wonderful little jaunt. It just didn't...quite...get there.
(The New York Idea plays at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, through February 26, 2011. Performances are Tuesday at 8pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Regular tickets are $65. Go to www.ticketcentral.com or call 212.279.4200 for tickets. For every performance of The New York Idea, 15 seats of the Lucille Lortel Theatre are available at $15 apiece.15 for $15 tickets are available to anyone. To purchase go to www.ticketcentral.com or call 212.279.4200, and use the code NY15. For more information visit www.atlantictheater.org.)