Before They Were All Virgins

Wharton Revived, Sighing for Cy and John, Pre-Hays Code Candor

“The House of Mirth” is Edith Wharton’s greatest novel, with harried, hapless Lily Bart one of the great heroines of American lit—along with Booth Tarkington’s “Alice Adams,” Henry James’ Isabel Archer in “Portrait of a Lady,” just about every woman in the fiction of Dawn Powell—and I defy anyone to not shed at least one tear over Lily’s tragic end.

Rachel Dickstein has directed an adaptation of it, “Innocents,” for Ripe Time, which is one of the most visually elegant productions you’ll ever see.

Dickstein has pared down the book and set it on a largely bare stage, accented by highly versatile grille-work gates and brocaded wallpaper. Her cast of seven, impeccably costumed by Ilona Somogyi, impersonates the bulk of Wharton’s vivid characters—rich, arch bitch, Judy Trenor; her lustful pig of a husband, Gus; malignant Bertha Dorset; Lily’s various repugnant suitors, and her reluctant true love, Lawrence Selden.

The highly choreographed play, set to Katie Downs’ lovely music, is full of visually arresting moments. Lily is bound up in a tulle veil and then blood-red fabric to symbolize her economic and gender imprisonment; opened doors shed perspective light on the solitary heroine, forever an outsider for her impoverishment and inner ambivalence; a Mediterranean cruise is minimally but effectively suggested by a change of color scheme and ship’s rail; a crimson velvet gown which unfolds around Lily’s forbidding Aunt Peniston (talented, versatile Jill Samuels) becomes an entire aristocratic environment.

It’s often gorgeous to behold, but the leanness of Wharton’s prose is too often unnecessarily fattened up by all the highly repetitive choreography—lots of fainting moves for Lily. This is one play, which, for a change, could do with less “action” and more talk, as those unfamiliar with the book might be mystified as to the exact circumstances of Lily’s downfall. Paula McGonagle, while conventionally pretty, like Gillian Anderson in Terence Davies’ 2000 film version, doesn’t begin to suggest the misguided intensity and ineffable charm necessary to the role, which might well have been written for the young Katharine Hepburn. She’s pure victim from the outset, which gives her performance no real dramatic arc, and robs her end of much of its poignant depth.

The curtain went up at Cy Coleman’s memorial at the Majestic Theatre, revealing a sight to gladden the heart of any theater maven—the full Fosse lineup of the “Big Spender” number from “Sweet Charity” led by Chita Rivera and Anne Reinking. Backed by the likes of Ute Lemper, and others, as chorus girls, they did this definitively brassy number to a fare-thee-well. One didn’t think anything could top this, but Judy Kaye showed her phenomenal vocal range, grand-slamming “Never” from her star-making “On the Twentieth Century,” and then Lilias White performed a sizzling “The Oldest Profession,” which was like the audition piece to end all, leaving the stage in flames.

Brian Stokes Mitchell was scheduled to sing “Witchcraft,” but, due to Tony Bennett’s laryngitis, was called upon to do Coleman’s ultimo, “The Best is Yet to Come,” instead. With his matchless voice and technique, Stokes Mitchell should have done both. He exhorted the crowd to snap their fingers, “as Cy’s music always has an innate cool for me.” True, indeed: the tunes of this most urbane of composers epitomize a yearned-for era when adults behaved, not like somewhat embarrassing, desperate demographic-pleasers, but like adults, replete with martinis, smooth dance moves and patter, and, essentially, a certain delicious mystery.

“Adult” in every way could describe Hollywood’s films before the rigidly censorious Hays Code, which came into existence in 1934, and set the movie industry back decades in terms of mature content. Our traditional national prudery as regards subjects like sex and nudity could probably be as easily ascribed to this—and the ongoing, not too dissimilar work of the Motion Picture Association of America—as well as any efforts of the religious right.

But, before the code, particularly 1931-33, Hollywood films were deliciously rife with sex, drugs and jazz, addressing every issue from abortion to nymphomania. In January 24, Film Forum is showing two prime examples, “Two Seconds” and “Baby Face.”

The first stars Edward G. Robinson as a man about to be executed for his lover’s murder, seeing his life pass before his eyes in the proverbial remaining “two seconds.” One of the darkest American films ever made, Robinson’s personal disintegration at the hands of a cynical dance hall hostess, a superb, nail-hard Vivienne Osborne, is stark, indeed. And, if you thought James Cagney’s shoving a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in “The Public Enemy” was mean, wait until you see Preston Foster contemptuously flick a cigarette onto Osborne’s bare back.

“Parents: do not bring your children” was how “Baby Face” was advertised in 1933. This has Barbara Stanwyck, ruthlessly sleeping her way to the top, going from speakeasy whore to Manhattan penthouse mistress in 76 fabulous minutes. The Library of Congress has discovered five extra minutes of originally censored footage, which will be shown, and the mind reels at what they might contain.

Here, Stanwyck established herself for all time as the most contemporary, no-nonsense and utterly real of Hollywood stars. Devoid of the stylistic mannerisms of Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn, that unshakeable Brooklyn accent was the mainstay of her persona, which she deploys in “Baby Face” to searing effect. Applying for a job, the personnel clerk asks her, “Have you had any experience?” “Plenty” is her snarled response. Added delight is provided by the lovely actress, Theresa Harris, as Stanwyck’s pal-cum-maid, described at one point as “that fantastic colored girl.” One of the authentic pleasures of the talkies, she made 68 films, with everyone from Davis to Dietrich, and, here, she bewitchingly croons an a capella “St. Louis Blues,” the perfect leitmotif for Stanwyck’s inexorable rise.

The ultimate “baby face,” John Mayer, closed out The New York Times Arts and Leisure cultural weekend, with a conversation with writer Jon Pareles at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. A whole cadre of wannabe “Sex and the City” career girls—and me—collectively drooled over his low-key charm, self-deprecating humor and sincere artistic expression. He talks rather like your typical, if more intelligent and rich, 20-something slacker, but when he opens his mouth to sing, it’s pure Dolby-time: that richly raspy voice flooded the Hirschfeld on “Daughters,” even taking Pareles somewhat aback.

Mayer spoofed all of his many musical imitators, with their copied guitar riffs and jaunty ditties, saying, “It kind of drives me crazy when I’m in the shower and hear me on the radio. But you know what, you can have it all now! I’m out of this game.” He promised that his third CD will be a completely different thing, more influenced by blues and Hendrix, and hoped that his audience will accept this: “But even if I sell four million less albums, well, maybe not four million, maybe two million, I’ll still be happy.” Mayer also spoofed himself, saying, “Sometimes when I’m happy with what I’m playing, I’ll ‘whoo!’ myself, and then I realize how totally uncool that is, to ‘whoo!’ oneself.” He contrasted his basically “up,” unconventional rock attitude with that of a typical moodster, like Bryan Adams “who I run into all the time at Union Square Virgin Records. I’ll say, ‘Hey, we should get together and write something!’ and he’ll be looking down at the ground, saying, ‘Uh, no, you won’t like that. I smoke.’”

The Times Weekend proved a rich source of celeb info-bytes. At her TimesTalk, Susan Sarandon recalled her sex scene with Jude Law in “Alfie.” “Yeah, that was a tough job. Actually, in my fantasy, our characters patch it up down the road after the movie ends. But you never know who a movie is going to appeal to. ‘Shall We Dance’ was supposed to be a teen movie for Jennifer Lopez fans. Our return audience turned out to be middle-aged married people and gay men. I thought ‘Thelma and Louise’ was this cowboy movie. Who knew we’d wind up offending all of these white men and it would be such a great movie?”

National Public Radio’s Terry Gross recalled Bill O’Reilly’s appearance on her program: “I asked him if he ever used his microphone as a means of settling scores. He accused me of doing an imbalanced interview and walked out of the studio. Later that night, I was the subject of his nightly ‘Most Ridiculous Item of the Day’ segment on his Fox News show.” A good interviewer, Gross always manages to get her questions answered, one way or another.

But my favorite quote came from the redoubtable Dame Edna: “I apologize for any incoherence you hear today. It is early and I am afraid I feel as Charlie Rose looks.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

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