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A CurtainUp NJ Review
The Age of Innocence
New York is Heaven. Heaven on earth — Ellen
Visually stunning as a tableau vivant and as dramatically constrained, the stage adaptation that Douglas McGrath has crafted from Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1920 novel The Age of Innocence moves gainfully and with notable grace from one plot point to the next like so many animated Cliffs Notes.

The production (a co-production with Hartford Stage) now at the McCarter Theatre Center under the sensitive direction of Doug Hughes is offering the audience a taste of Victorian attitudes that drove the novel that's noted for its brilliant insight of New York society at the end of the nineteenth century.

It's the bittersweet story of a young attorney Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra) who, despite being engaged to a lovely socialite May Welland (Helen Cespedes,) is instantly smitten by May's alluring cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess) when she suddenly returns to her New York family having run away from her abusive husband in Europe. A scandal in the making for sure.

The impressive unit setting designed by John Lee Beatty looks like an immense glass pavilion and serves as a grand ballroom as well as other locations by the clever movement and placement of gilded chairs. The setting is enhanced by the beautifully atmospheric lighting designed by Ben Stanton. A pianist (Yan Lil) plays lovely mood music on a baby grand in the rear of the set that underscores various scenes.

The action moves forward with narration provided by Boyd Gaines as the older Newland and our guide into the lavish world and life style of this particular family. Broadway veteran Gaines adds a wry wrinkle to his periodic comments that provide reasons for the younger Newland's emotional investment in an ill-fated love. We are asked to empathize with his agony and frustration. We do.

For her part, Ellen is mostly responsive to Newland's kindness to her in the light of a family scandal. Played with a captivating sensuality by Boggess, the unconsummated exchanges do suggest they are torn between desire and morality. Only briefly inferred is Ellen's brave decision to assert her independence in an age of dependency. Noted for her glorious voice, Boggess gets a chance to sing the hit tune de jour "Beautiful Dreamer" as a duet with Veenstra.

It is to the production's benefit that all of the characters who have been preserved from the novel by McGrath are being played by a company of splendid actors, many in multiple roles. It doesn't hurt that they are all dressed in eye-filling period-perfect attire by costume designer Linda Cho. Life is grand and as dutifully dull for these folk as their obligatory trips to the opera.

Some cast standouts: Darrie Lawrence as the wise matriarch Mrs. Manson Mingott and Deirdre Madigan as May's mother Mrs. Welland. With a lot at stake, May knows more about the unsettling relationship between Newland and Ellen than she would ever admit to anyone. Despite being deceptively coy as well as cunning Ms Cespedes as May is quite charming.

I doubt if any stage adaptation or production could capture life at the time as well as did Martin Scorsese in his 1993 film version. While respectable enough as an overview, I wish that multi-award-winning director Hughes and adaptor McGrath could have invested more imagination and theatricality in a production that serves the gentility of the novel but not the possibilities of the stage.


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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Boyd Gaines (The Old Gentleman), Helen Cespedes (May Welland), Sierra Boggess (Countess Ellen Olenska), Tony Ward (Larry Lefferts, Mr. Van der Luyden, Mr. Letterblair), Joseph Adams (Sillerton Jackson, Julius Beaufort, Mr. Hickey), Josh Salt (Mr. Thorley, Monsieur Riviere, Dallas Archer), Andrew Veenstra (Newland Archer), Darrie Lawrence (Mrs. Manson Mingott), Deirdre Madigan (Mrs. Van der Luyden, Florist) Pianist (Yan Li)
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 G. LaPointe
Choreographer: Peter Pucci
Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes no intermission
Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J.
From 09/07/18 Opened 09/15 Ends 10/07/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on matinee performance 09/15/18

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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