Old Acquaintance, American Airlines Theatre, New York

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Bette Davis made a sub-career out of roughing up her female co-stars – starving Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, slapping Mary Astor in The Great Lie, and administering a good shaking to Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance. The 1940 John van Druten play on which that last movie is based, now in revival from the Roundabout, needs a jolt of Davis-sized proportions: the production is less shaken than
stirred.

Like much of Michael Wilson’s staging, which is enjoyable, just barely, as summer fluff, the moment isn’t exploited for full impact. It suffers not only from Margaret Colin, as Kit Markham, the Davis role, not fully crossing the drawing room of Mildred Watson Drake, the Hopkins part, to give the rebuke, but from the miscasting of Colin to begin with.

Colin was superb last year in John Patrick Shanley’s Defiance, which was set in the 1970s. Having to perform in a story set 30 years earlier defeats her. To be fair, it undoes many contemporary actors, who cannot seem to convey sophisticated behaviour between the wars. Unlike when they play parts set prior to the 20th century, in plays such as Old Acquaintance they must compete with our moving-image-stocked memories of documentaries and feature films shot during the period in question.

Colin’s listless performance as the middle-aged Markham, a literary New York novelist whose younger lover has just proposed, looks especially wan compared with the work of a sporadically lively Harriet Harris as Mildred, who is Markham’s lifelong friend. Mildred, a best-selling potboiler writer, has to compete for the affection of her 19-year-old daughter, Deirdre, with Markham. Meanwhile, Markham must compete with Deirdre for the attention of one Rudd Kendall.

All three women must compete with their costumes. Designer David C. Woolard outfits Mildred in a butternut ensemble and Kit in a paprika suit, and swaths both women in fur collars. John Cheever once defined 1940s New York “as a time when men still wore hats”. For women, it was an age when women still wore gloves, and pulling them off was used to punctuate emotion the way that flipping shut a mobile is used in movies today. This Old Acquaintance at least gets the glove removal right.
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