Love Conflicts With 1870s New York Society in “The Age of Innocence”; Exquisite Adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Novel Premieres at McCarter
“THE AGE OF INNOCENCE”: Performances are underway for “The Age of Innocence.” Directed by Doug Hughes, the play runs through October 7 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. An Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines, far left) looks on as Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra, left) and Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess) face the conflict between their love, and their responsibility to their families — and to society in 1870s New York. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
An exquisite new stage adaptation of The Age of Innocence opened September 15 at McCarter. In adapting Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, which in 1921 made her the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, playwright Douglas McGrath honors its literary intent. However, he skillfully edits it to heighten its power as a piece of theater.
As pianist Yan Li plays the pensive opening notes of the incidental score by Mark Bennett, an Older Gentleman of the 1920s enters. He describes New York in the 1870s — the Gilded “Age” that gives the novel its ironic title — as a place where elite society brings rigid social conventions.
At the Academy of Music — which is the preeminent place to see an opera, as the Metropolitan on 39th Street is still under construction — an older woman, Mrs. Manson Mingott, is seated in a box with other female members of her family, including the Countess Ellen Olenska.
In another box, Larry Lefferts explains to other young men of New York’s elite that the countess left her New York City family to marry a count in Europe, then left the count for his secretary. Lefferts adds that the affair did not last, and Ellen was brought back to New York by her aunt, Lovell Mingott. Newland Archer, a lawyer, abruptly reprimands Larry and the other men for gossiping about the women.
The Old Gentleman reveals that he is Newland, and that he objected to the discussion because the countess was a cousin of May Welland, his fiancée. He breaks the fourth wall to have May turn and face the audience.
In the novel, the older Newland does not appear until late in the story, but his appearance at the beginning, one of McGrath’s inventive alterations, is an effective bookend. It sets the scene for the audience, and establishes the ensuing series of events as a detailed memory. As such, the decision to present the show without an intermission is wise. A break would be disruptive.
Newland visits May in the ladies’ box, to beg her to announce their engagement at a ball that will be hosted by Julius Beaufort. May introduces Newland and Ellen, who have not seen each other since childhood.
Later, they meet at a dinner party that has been planned by Mrs. Welland and Mrs. Mingott, in an effort to repair Ellen’s reputation (all of the invitations to a previous dinner for her were declined). Newland is startled by her boldness in moving away from other men, to talk to him and openly discuss her failed marriage.
One morning soon after that, Newland arrives late for work at the law office, and explains that ordering lilies-of-the-valley for May took longer than usual. Ellen wishes to divorce the count, and Newland is assigned to her case. Her family objects to a divorce, and wants Newland to represent her so that the case will remain a family secret.
Newland visits Ellen, in an effort to persuade her to avoid the social calamity that would result from filing for a divorce. She reluctantly agrees; he offers her a comforting touch. She performs a parlor song (by Stephen Foster), “Beautiful Dreamer,” and asks Newland to sing with her. As a gift, she offers him the music. He accepts the printed score, which briefly becomes a source of physical connection.
Newland and May eventually marry, but their relationship is emotionally distant. At one point Newland asks May to sing “Beautiful Dreamer.” Performing the song makes May uncomfortable, and she stops. Newland finishes it by himself, adding to the tension.
The interpolation of “Beautiful Dreamer” is one of the show’s seamless additions to the story. Music plays an integral role in the novel, as exemplified by the opera setting, but here it becomes a symbol for intimacy — lacking in Newland’s relationship with May; present, but inappropriate, with Ellen.
Serendipitously the Foster song is in triple meter, making it blend in with Bennett’s score, which includes a waltz. Throughout the play Bennett’s music, in tandem with Ben Stanton’s lighting, heightens emotional moments and demarcates transitions between scenes.
Peter Pucci’s choreography for the waltz is eye-filling, and gracefully performed by the ensemble. However, Doug Hughes’ direction also is choreographic. The staging makes deliberate use of space, and the actors are economical in their choices of body language, so that every bit of movement is significant.
Sierra Boggess, who portrays Ellen, is well suited to a drama set in the late 19th century, having played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel, Love Never Dies. With her rich soprano, Boggess gives “Beautiful Dreamer” an expressive performance, infusing it with the emotional power it requires.
In contrast to Boggess’ natural, often impassioned tone of voice and comparatively gregarious body language, Helen Cespedes infuses May with a silvery voice and inflections that usually are stylized. Like many of the other characters, she sits with her hands folded, evincing the prim attitude typical of the society in which she is immersed.
As the older Newland, Boyd Gaines is given some of the best one-liners — he drily describes New York City as a place where the sun “rises on the east side” — which he delivers with a mixture of asperity and regret. It is with body language, however, that he reveals the most about the character. As he wistfully watches his younger self interact with May and Ellen, he often keeps his hands behind his back; when he lets them be seen, they sometimes shake.
Andrew Veenstra is equally adept at conveying the younger Newland’s conflict between his affection for May and his budding passion for Ellen. There is an astute bit of staging in which both Newlands cross the stage to look at the same bouquet of flowers.
Darrie Lawrence and Josh Salt are entertaining in their respective roles of Mrs. Mingott and a carefree French tutor, Monsieur Riviere. Both characters make choices that are at odds with society, and are given a comparatively relaxed posture to contrast with the reserved demeanor of most of the other characters.
The period costumes by Linda Cho illustrate the dynamics between the characters. The innocent (though not naïve) May wears white, while the worldly Ellen wears black. The younger Newland wears black and white, which reflects his feelings for both women. Tellingly, the older Newland wears gray, a mixture of those colors. The palette is brightened by a pink dress for Mrs. Mingott. Cho’s costumes, and Hughes’ stylized staging, work with Stanton’s lighting to create the effect of placing the characters in a painting.
The predominant theme is constraint. Ellen is constrained by her past, May by her inability to change, and Newland by his difficulty in choosing between his feelings and his sense of propriety. This theme is developed by John Lee Beatty’s set, through its ubiquitous window grilles. Despite its elegance, the ballroom resembles a cage.
This unity of script and staging is the result of consistently meticulous choices by the talented cast and creative team. McGrath’s thoughtful adaptation provides his collaborators with ample scope to create a series of poignant, ravishing tableaux.