June 30, 2007

An "Old Acquaintance" Too Easy to Forget

Why? That's the first thing I want to know when I hear a play or a musical is being revived. And that question seems particularly apt when it comes to the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival of Old Acquaintance. This is the first time John van Druten’s comedy about the personal and professional rivalries between two women writer friends has been performed on Broadway since its original production in 1940. I imagine one reason it drifted to the top of the Roundabout's "to-do" list is that meaty parts for women over 40 are hard to come by once you rule out Shakespeare and the Greeks. Both Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris are women of a certain age and considerable talent and so I imagine someone thought Old Acquaintance would provide a great opportunity for them to strut their stuff. Harris, in the showier role of Millie, the play's self-centered commercial fiction writer, stomps right in, goes all out for the laughs, and gets most of them. Colin, a longtime favorite of mine, tries to bring more nuance to her portrayal of Kit, the self-sacrificing literary novelist who is Millie's lifelong best friend, but she can't quite find her footing and seems ill at ease with the odd bits of business, like sucking on lollipops, that director Michael Wilson has given her to perform. David C. Woolard's '40s-style costumes are swell to look at, Alexander Dodge's imposing sets aim to impress and do, and John Gromada's original music sets a jaunty tone for what turns out to be a mildly amusing evening.

Still, you might enjoy yourself just as much, if not more, if you stay home and rent the 1943 movie version starring Bette Davis as Kit and Miriam Hopkins as Millie. The DVD includes a smart mini-doc on the women's movie genre that was a Warner Bros. specialty and commentary by the film's director Vincent Sherman and the Davis biographer Boze Hadleigh; they dish deliciously about how the off-screen drama mirrored what was going on in front of the camera as Hopkins repeatedly tried to upstage Davis and how Sherman succumbed to Davis's advances and became her lover. But it's the movie itself that most entertains you. On the surface, Old Acquaintance seems a fluffy trifle, one of those drawing room comedies where swanky people are always clinking cocktail glasses or slamming doors. But unlike the Roundabout production, the movie takes quite seriously the challenges many women face as they struggle to balance the demands of work and family, and the solace they often find in friendship, even difficult ones. I've noticed that many male critics have been enchanted with the silly way the women are treated in the current stage production; but this gal misses the more serious message. It's one that rings as true today as it did in the '40s and, apparently, it hits home with women of all ages; in March it was announced that Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz are going to star in a new screen version.

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