October 5, 2013

How "Philip Goes Forth" Left Me Behind

Philip Goes Forth seemed tailor-made for me.  It’s a play about a young man who dreams of a life in the theater. It was written by George Kelly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who, for added glamor, also happened to be the uncle of the movie actress Grace Kelly. It’s being produced by the Mint Theater Company, which usually mounts handsome productions of works by worthy playwrights who have been forgotten. And it’s been getting warm notices from other critics I respect and admire, including my pal Terry Teachout at The Wall Street Journal (click here to read his review).  

And yet I was really disappointed by this revival of Kelly's 1931 comedy. 
The title character is the son of a wealthy businessman who is expected to go into the family business but hightails it to New York to pursue his dream of being a playwright. There, he moves into a boarding house run by a retired actress and populated by other artistic hopefuls who run the talent gamut from an idle poseur to a true artiste. The question is where Philip falls on the spectrum.
But the real conundrum is the production. The Mint simply doesn't deliver this time. Director Jerry Ruiz gets points for attempting non-traditional casting—an Asian woman plays the aunt of an Hispanic man who plays the son of a white guy without it seemingly overly odd. But Ruiz is nowhere near as successful with blending the acting styles of his cast. A few of the actors are too broad, others too stiff and some too one-note.

One exception is Kathryn Kates, who stepped into the role of the landlady just two weeks before the show opened when Jennifer Harmon, still listed in the Playbill, dropped out. Kates conveys both intelligence and empathy as a woman who holds no delusions about what it takes to be an artist. Another standout is Natalie Kuhn, a lovely young ingénue who brings some welcomed tartness to Philip’s hometown sweetheart. 
Meanwhile, the production values, usually a Mint strong point, are wobbly this time out. The elaborate sets—a swank all-white sitting room in the first act, the boarding room’s artsy, Bohemian-style parlor for the second and third—drew oohs and aahs at the performance my husband K and I attended. They do look good but I wondered if they didn't serve the purpose of the designer more than the show:  would a small-town matron really embrace such an art deco aesthetic?

And although the costumes have also drawn praise, they looked to me as though the actors reached into a grab bag of outfits leftover from different shows and put on whatever they plucked out. One pair of women's shoes resembled high-heeled sneakers  I’ve recently seen in a store window on Eighth Avenue and yanked me totally out of the plays 1930s period.  

From his first produced play, which poked fun at amateur theater groups, Kelly was a practicing talent snob and Philip Goes Forth might serve as his manifesto against dilettantes, second-rate talents and all other would-bes. It asks some thought-provoking questions about what it means to be an artist. But this production doesn’t answer them.

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