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A CurtainUp Review Impossible Marriage

By Elyse Sommer

With a Backgrounder By Ruth Gerchick: About Playwright Beth Henley

What could be lovelier and more promising than a garden wedding, especially the garden of a Savannah mansion in May? But when the wedding guests have been sprung from the pen of Beth Henley, the playwright known for putting a ridiculous spin on the Old South's tragic sensibilities, the likelihood of that wedding coming off without a hitch is, well, impossible. After all, the bride-to-be and her sister and mother are typically nutty-but-nice sort of Henley women with names reeking of magnolias and metaphors: Floral Kingsley is the flowering with life sister of the bride. Mother is Kandall (as in keeping the candle of Southern propriety lit) Kingsley. And Pandora Kingsley is the younger sister whose impossibly unsuitable marriage plans set off an array of revelations and complications.

Holly Hunter as the pregnant to the bursting maid of honor Floral is the star attraction of this wedding party bound to go awry. When she first enters the garden, plushly landscaped by Thomas Lynch, she pats her belly lovingly and with bemusement and asks "How will it end?"

How it all does end is neither consistently surprising, convincing or much deeper than the icing of the wedding cake which falls victim to Floral's suddenly uncontrollable craving. However, Ms. Hunter and her stage sister, Gretchen Cleevely and mother, Lois Smith, are a terrific threesome. They engender enough laughter and warmth to make their oddball characters thoroughly likeable and to make us glad we came to this wedding even if the floundering characters don't provide quite the strong and satisfying thematic underpinnings as those of the sisters in Crimes of The Heart. There's an underlying sadness and the same familial love, in Impossible Marriage, but none of the tense bickering and jealousy of its Pulitzer Prize winning predecessor. The gun which plays a part in both plays, is here used in a more farcical context.

To round out the cast of oddball Southern charmers, we also have four men with enough quirks to match the women. Unlike the women who are Henley variants on America's southern belles, the men seem to have been kidnaped from other literary pastures:

Henley's admitted first idol, Chekhov, is clearly present in the play's father and son characters. The pony-tailed middle aged groom to be, Edvard Lunt (Christopher McCann), and his emotional mess of an oldest of eight sons, Sidney (Daniel London). This son, whom his father fails to recognize, has arrived at the prenuptials to deliver a letter from his mother declaring that she will kill herself if the wedding takes place. Edvard is more than a little upset by this missive, but more by its miserable penmanship than its contents.

Reverend Larence (Alan Mandell) is a deliciously endearing throwback to the lustful missionary in Somerset Maugham's Rain with a touch of the bumbling doctor in Alan Ayckbourn's Woman In Mind (also a garden-setting farce -- see link below).

Finally there's Floral's husband Jonsey (Jon Tenney). He's as gallantly attentive as Margaret Mitchell's Tarleton twins and as sexually unavailable to her as Ashley Wilkes, with more than a dash of some of Tennessee Williams' male brooders -- above all, he's in love with his own dark good looks, a shallow man portrayed with considerable depth by Tenney.

All these characters talk in language that sounds more bookish than conversational, a fact underscored by their tendency to talk facing the audience more than each other. Some of this talk borders on the artificial and the face-front delivery doesn't help to establish a strong sense of real engagement between audience and actors.

Director Stephen Wadsworth has both directed and written opera. Not one to confuse his Magic Flute and Midsummer Night's Dream with Manon Lescaut, he directs this ensemble with the called for touch of airy fairy lightness. This gives a certain aptness to some of the excessively precious touches, like Martin Pakledinaz's visual joke of sky blue, angel-winged wedding dress. None of the solo arias and duets orchestrated during this intermissionless hour and a half leave you wrung out with emotion or really hard non-stop laughter. By the same token to come away with an incisive message of any real significance would be, once again, impossible. The eight characters group and regroup into relationships that are not so much impossible, but as Reverend Larence puts it, "tricky" which makes for some sharp observations on what's possible and impossible in any relationship.

If you can accept a cluster of ugly toadstools on a gorgeously perfect lawn, as does the not quite as proper as she seems Mrs. Kingsley, then you'll welcome back Beth Henley and her frequent interpreter, Holly Hunter, back to Broadway without fussing about this play's lack of heft. It's impossible to call it the best thing Henley has written, but it's quite possibly that it's one of the more enjoyable modern comedies to come down the pike.

The movie of the Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart (with Diane Keaton, Cissy Spacek and Jessica Lange as the off-center sisters) is still available on video, as is Holly Hunter's movie recreation of her role in the screwball comedy, The Miss Firecracker Contest The latter has also been collected into a paperback anthology: Four Plays which in addition to Miss Firecracker contains The Wake of Jamey Foster, The Lucky Spot (in which Hunter also played) and Abundance.

For a review of Henley's L-Plays which had its world premiere in the Berkshires three summers ago go here: L-Plays

By Beth Henley
Directed by Stephen Wadsworth
Starring Holly Hunter
With Christopher McCann, Lois Smith, Jon Tenney, Gretchen Cleevely, Daniel London, Alan Mandell
Set design: Thomas Lynch
Costume design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound design: Dan Wojnar
Roundabout Theatre Company, Laura Pels Theatre (212/719-1300)
9/23/98-1/01/99; opening 10/15/98
Reviewed 10/18/98 by Elyse Sommer

About Playwright Beth Henley
By Ruth Gerchick

In 1981, a year before her thirtieth birthday, Beth Henley's first full-length play, Crimes Of The Heart, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was a double first -- the first drama to receive the Pulitzer Prize before going on Broadway and the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman playwright to receive the award since Ketty Frings won it for Look Homeward Angel in 1958. Crimes also nabbed the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award and Newsday's Guggenheim Award. While in the running for a Tony the play faced a formidable rival in Nicholas Nickleby with its news-making 39-member ensemble in over 100 roles and tickets at a record-breaking $100 each. (In Show Business Awards, David Sheward points out that Crimes' producers feeling that its size and scope gave Nickleby an unfair advantage tried to have it placed in a separate category to make room for Crimes, but the Tony administrators nixed the request and Nicholas nicked Crimes. The screen version, also written by Henley, was a big success, though, as with the Tonys, it was nominated (in 1986) but did not win the Hollywood grand prize, the Oscar.
Sources of Henley's Characters and Sense of Place
Ms. Henley now lives in Los Angeles with her son, Patrick. As one of four daughters born to a Jackson, Mississipi lawyer and an actress mother, however, her natural creative bailiwick is the deep South, a place where family ties are deep, but where appearances often supersede true feeling. In her plays, against the background of the good life punctuated with parties and celebrations, white middle class families struggle with familiar human turmoil: relationships that appear to work but don't, loneliness and depression.

Female bonding plays an important role in Henley's way of thinking as a refuge and a way of coping. (Is this the flip-side of Little Women?). On the other hand, violence, murder and suicide, are not strangers to her work -- nor are stylized dysfunctional characters (à la Tennessee Williams) translated by the author into Ionescu-type absurdities.
Southern But Universal
While Henley's plays are drenched with the artifacts of Southern life -- the richness of its foliage, the rhythms and cadences of regional speech -- they are not about the South per se. The themes are universal. One could easily imagine Impossible Marriage, for example, in the countryside of England or France—even in another century.
The Many Faces of Henley's Theatrical Passion
Henley's love of the theater has been expressed in acting and teaching as well as writing. At Southern Methodist College, she joined the acting ensemble and later taught dramatics at the Dallas Minority Rep Theatre and at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
A List of Credits
Henley's plays have appeared in and around Broadway, in Los Angeles and in a spate of regional theaters. To be specific: The Wake of Jamie Foster (on Broadway and at the Hartford Stage Company); The Miss Firecracker Contest (Manhattan Theatre Club); the one act Am I Blue? (Circle Rep); The Debutante Ball ( South Coast Rep, MTC, New York Stage & Film Company); The Lucky Spot, (Williamstown Theatre Festival, MTC); Abundance (South Coast Rep, MTC); Signature (New York Stage & Film, Charlotte Rep); Control Freaks (Chicago's Center Theatre, L.A.'s Met Theatre); Revelers (New York Stage & Film) and L-Play (Berkshire Theatre Festival.-- see LINK above).

Screenplays include Crimes of the Heart; Miss Firecracker; Nobody's Fool ; and True Stories (co-writer).

©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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