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A CurtainUp Review

By Macey Levin

She just tells the truth and in our world people think it's outrageously funny
--- from S. N. Behrman's Jane
S.N. Behrman was a major American playwright from the 1920's through the '60's, creating light fare with references to contemporaneous issues. Many of his works are drawing room comedies that employ sophisticated wit and sharp insights to societal and world problems. This is the case with Jane, produced in America in 1952, written in the mid-'40's, set in 1937 London, based on a 1920's short story by W. Somerset Maugham and receiving its first production since '52 by the Peccadillo Theater Company at the Bank Street Theatre.

The widowed and middle-aged Jane Fowler arrives in London to inform her sister-in-law Millicent Tower that she is about to wed a much younger man. This leads to plot situations and conversations centered on inter-generational marriages and differing perspectives on age and life's challenges. Mix into this Millicent's daughter Anne's involvement with a young man, Peter Crewe, whose wife is in a German prison camp in Austria and the situation produces observations on the evolving turmoil leading to World War Two.

Allan Frobisher, a publisher who owns several Enquirer type newspapers, prompts Jane's criticism for his tawdry and sordid journalism. The importance of responsible reporting is yet another thematic statement.

Jane is forthright to a fault. Behrman uses her honesty and directness to create witty and incisive comments about human relationships and world affairs which tend to complicate the protagonists' lives. It would seem that these various plots and subjects would make the play feel make a scatter-shot work, but thanks to Behrman's facile dialogue and story-telling, they all fall into place in a logical and dramatically effective structure.

What is necessary for the sophisticated dialogue that turns into verbal farce is a cast that is adept at its communication. The more experienced Pecadillo cast members generally handle the material well while the younger ones do not yet have the requisite technique to handle the style. This is not a major failing of the production, but it does serve to weaken the total effect.

As Millicent the veteran actress Leila Martin, who was the original Madame Giry in Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Phantom of the Opera, had a rough first act. She obviously went up on her lines and fumfered through others. The problem may have been attributable to first preview tentativeness. At any rate, she was more in control in the following two acts and redeemed herself with a credible performance.

Millicent's ex-husband William, modeled after Maugham (he and Behrman were strong friends) is played by Richard Bekins who has some of the funniest lines in the play and many cogent observations regarding the thematic ideas. He is often the wise observer and spokesman for the author. Bekins, however, punctuates his comic lines with a repetitive facial expression. His performance along with that of Susan Jeffries as Jane is the spine of the production.

Jeffries' first act characterization is overly winsome making her more cloying than entertaining and wise. As with Ms. Martin, her next two acts are stronger. As her Jane becomes more attuned to the people and events surrounding her, the performance takes on more texture and depth giving strength to Behrman's dialogue and observations.

Roland Johnson's philandering and blustery Frobisher evolves throughout the piece. His work is fluid and seamless.

Director Dan Wackerman, who is also the Artistic director of the Peccadillo Theater Company, keeps the action flowing smoothly. What could have become a group of caricatured performances are well controlled and intelligently portrayed. He uses a very confined stage well to create interesting stage pictures.

The Bank Street Theatre is a problematic space. Located in the basement of 155 Bank Street, there are pipes and conduits running the length of the ceiling and support columns in obtrusive locations. The configuration creates problems for lighting and scenic design as well as efficacious staging. To the company's credit they have minimized the problems, but they still exist. Seating, however, is comfortable and the general ambience of the facility is agreeable.

Given the state of contemporary theatre economics, it is companies such as the Peccadillo, founded in 1994 and dedicated to reviving forgotten American classics such as Jane and last year's Ladies of the Corridor, that have earned and deserve the support of the theatre-going public. Without them the heritage of the American theatre could be forgotten. Though not yet a finely tuned performance when I saw it, this production of Jane is worth a visit.

Written by S.N. Behrman
Directed by Dan Wackerman
Cast: Richard Bekins, Kristina Bell, Matthew DeCapua, Susan Jeffries, Roland Johnson, Chris Kipniak, Mort Kroos, Leila Martin
Scenic Design: Chris Jones
Costume Design: Sean Sullivan
Lighting Design: Dana Sterling
Graphic Design: Dick Larson
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Peccadillo Theater Company at Bank Street Theatre (155 Bank Street) 212-561-9635
10/2/03-10/26/03; opening: 10/5/03
Thurs-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 3pm. -- $15
Reviewed by Macey Levin at 10/2/03 performance.

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