The New York Idea is an efficient comedy machine that has been given a suitably efficient production by the Atlantic Theatre, not at its usual off-Broadway space but at the Lucille Lortel. Sparks fly, quips are exchanged, and grins and groans are elicited in equal measure.
Premiered in 1906, this play, by Langdon Mitchell, has been so thoroughly revised by David Auburn, best known for Proof, as to constitute more a world premiere than a revival. A few minor roles have been eliminated, leaving a dozen or so characters. Themes and plot have been made smoother. Some would say the result is delight-free but there’s a kind of dogged period pleasure to be had from the sometimes ebullient proceedings.
Mark Brokaw, who directed, has described the work’s subtext as “Washington Square defending its gates against the interlopers”. Others have seen in Mitchell’s story a madcap gloss on Private Lives set in the New York memorialised by Edith Wharton. If you think that’s an insult to Wharton, whose obsessive exploration of divorce finds echoes in The New York Idea, all I can say is, have you read Mrs Manstey’s View recently?
If Mitchell’s play sounds old-fashioned, well, it is, and I must admit that through some of the exposition I did a fair bit of mental knitting. In a Greenwich Village townhouse, Cynthia Karslake, an aristocratic young divorcee animated by the fine actor Jaime Ray Newman, is to marry distinguished judge Philip Phillimore. Cynthia learns that her former husband, John Karslake, has sold her beloved racehorse to Phillimore’s former wife. The animal’s trainer tells her that the horse is slowing down, infuriating Cynthia, who also expends energy repelling advances from a visiting Brit, Wilfred Cates-Darby.
The play canters along from there, with Auburn’s adaptation pushing things occasionally into a full gallop. The costumes, by Michael Krass, are also sprightly, especially an ostrich-feather hat worn by Phillimore’s ex.
Here and there, The New York Idea puts one in mind not just of Wharton but also of Henry James, at least the Master in the 1880 novel that he later judged wanting: Washington Square. It also evokes Downton Abbey, the British country house drama that Americans have been watching for the past month on television. As in Downton, in The New York Idea the dowagers trump their daughters in the wit sweepstakes. Philip’s mother, the stern Patricia O’Connell, oozes disapproval and her sister, Miss Henage, in the expert hands of Patricia Conolly, gives bafflement a decided twist.
Also Downton-ish: the servants comment freely on their employers’ behaviour. A French maid, a little too goosed with ooh-la-la by Mikaela Feely-Lehmann, is especially saucy.
If Auburn is unable to paper over all the bumps in the narrative, he keeps the digressions mercifully brief. The Atlantic Theatre shows again its acumen in urging playwrights to undertake projects outside their comfort zone. Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance, adapted by the Atlantic’s co-founder David Mamet, had been the most successful previous example of the company’s unobvious pairings; The New York Idea joins its company almost as successfully.