September 5, 2018

Director, Playwright of “The Age of Innocence” Praise Edith Wharton at McCarter Forum

FROM PAGE TO STAGE: Helen Cespedes and Andrew Veenstra star in Douglas McGrath’s play adapted from Edith Wharton’s classic novel “The Age of Innocence,” at McCarter Theatre Center starting Friday. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Anne Levin

Fans of Edith Wharton find plenty to love in The Age of Innocence, her novel about a New York love triangle in the stultifying high society of the Gilded Age. But when they were younger, playwright Douglas McGrath, who wrote the theatrical adaptation that opens at McCarter Theatre Center on September 7, and Doug Hughes, who directed the production, did not count themselves among those fans.

Fast forward a few decades, and the two Dougs are overflowing with praise for the book. Appearing along with McCarter’s resident producer Debbie Bisno at Princeton Public Library last Thursday as part of the McCarter Live at the Library series, both men described how they came to regard The Age of Innocence as a masterpiece.

“I didn’t read it in college,” admitted McGrath, who graduated from Princeton University in 1980 and wrote for The Triangle Club productions. “And had I read it then, I wouldn’t have appreciated it. My criteria at the time was that if by page five someone hadn’t been shot or had sex, I wasn’t interested.”

McGrath wrote the screen versions of Jane Austen’s Emma (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby. In some ways, The Age of Innocence trumps them both. “Wharton understands both genders better than either of them,” he said. “And she understands them equally. Her intuition about people is extraordinary. What makes the novel great is how it is relevant to each generation.”

Hughes, a Harvard graduate, read The Age of Innocence in school but “skated through it,” he said. “I didn’t understand, at 19, that it was a masterpiece.”

The play runs through October 7 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre and is a co-production with Hartford Stage, where it had a recent run. The cast and creative team are the same — “97 percent intact,” said Hughes. He is a Tony Award winner and the son of actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg.

Asked by moderator Paula Alekson how he came to be a director, Hughes recalled his childhood. “When you’re the child of actors, you learn pretty quickly that you’re not the only blessed event in their lives,” he joked. Being raised in the theater “supplied me with a way of seeing the world, of stopping the distractions,” he said. Hughes majored in biology at Harvard, but soon found himself starting a small theater company and directing their productions.

McGrath was an Engish major at Princeton, a welcome escape from his native Midland, Texas, a place he likened to “a frying pan full of dirt.” But the town had an active community theater, where he saw a children’s play and a live preview of My Fair Lady. “I heard [the song] ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly’ and that was it,” he recalled. “To see those colors, to experience the magic of leaving the world you’re in and going someplace else …”

McGrath’s work on Triangle Club productions was good training for the television show Saturday Night Live (SNL), where he began his career as a writer. “For Triangle Club, I wrote some lyrics, and the play, and then we did it. That experience was invaluable to me before doing SNL, because of that. You had to come up with material, adapt it, and get on with it. At SNL, it was the same thing.”

Like him, most of the writers at SNL were Ivy League educated. But he was the lone Princetonian in a sea of Harvard graduates. “I was surrounded by a lot of silly people who were very smart,” he said. “They knew a lot that I didn’t know, and I felt badly about that. So I made it a point to read The Age of Innocence, and other books, at that time.”

The book’s protagonist is aristocrat Newland Archer, following him from his 20s through middle age. “When I read the book, I was in my late 20s and the central concerns of Newland as a young man were my own concerns. When I wrote the play, I had an older man’s perspective and I understood him as an older man, thinking ‘What did I miss? What did I get?’”

Turning the novel into a play is “like you’re taking apart a Rolls Royce, and reassembling it into a much smaller thing, like a Volkswagen — with the spirit retained,” said McGrath.

McGrath’s play is faithful to the novel, with a few additions. Both he and Hughes said they keep the book close at hand. “I love having the book in the rehearsal hall,” said Hughes. “To call it a touchstone really understates it.” McGrath added, “We go back to the book whenever we have a problem, and that solves it.”