“We are fond of each other.
I think perhaps we need each other. Though I don’t know what you really need me for.” — Milly
“I think we all need old friends. Or an old friend.” — Kit
It was the legendary Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins who portrayed the rival authors that value their long-time but testy friendship in the 1943 film version of John van Druten’s ever-so-frail but deliciously flavorsome 1940 comedy, “Old Acquaintance.” They were reported to be ready to tear each other’s hair out during the filming of it, much the same way that the famously tempestuous Davis and Joan Crawford created publicity during the filming of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” There is no record or indication that the stars of the original Broadway production of “Old Acquaintance” — Jane Cowl and Peggy Wood — ever carried the hostility in their roles beyond the footlights.
The Roundabout Theater Company revival has done quite well with its casting of Margaret Colin, as the well-adjusted but never married Katherine Markham, a writer of high repute, and Harriet Harris, as Mildred Watson Drake, a prolific author of highly successful low brow romance novels and a resentful divorcee. Let us hope that the opportunities for Ms. Harris to upstage, outshine, and overpower the otherwise excellent Ms. Colin don’t provoke any jealousy beyond that which is prescribed by the script. The joy of the play is in the playing of it, which has, understandably, not been revived with any regularity for reasons that are readily observable. Yet what could be more fun than watching two formidable 40-something women attempt to maintain a life-long friendship despite having personalities that couldn’t be more out-of-synch?
And what could be more devastating to their amusingly strained relationship, one that has stood the test of increasingly incompatible temperaments since their college days, than an awkward romantic situation involving Katherine’s much younger current lover, Rudd Kendall (Corey Stoll), and Deirdre Drake (Diane Davis), Mildred’s 19- year old daughter. This then is what pits sensible Kit against insecure Milly in a way that is likely to prove disastrous to both.
The waves of witty banter waft diligently through the two interior New York apartment settings designed by Alexander Dodge. One is Kit’s unpretentious abode defined by its regard for books and bookcases, although a little whimsy is discharged as one row of books also opens up and serves as a bar. The other setting is Milly’s ostentatious Park Avenue suite that is best described by Kit as “a decorated Valentine.” It is within these walls and in three short acts that van Druten’s inimitable gift for gab and convoluted piffle is deployed.
Except for the endearing film version cited above, this twitter and twaddle fest may not be considered in the same league with such other van Druten plays as “Bell, Book and Candle,” “I Remember Mama,” and “I Am a Camera,” which was transformed in the musical “Cabaret.” A pallid remake, “Rich and Famous,” starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset was filmed in 1981 under the direction of George Cukor.
This production, however, has been helmed quite nicely by Michael Wilson, who, as he did so eloquently before with “Enchanted April,” “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” and “The Day Emily Married,” demonstrates a flair for celebrating different aspects of the feminine mystique. At its best, Wilson’s direction seems earnestly determined not to give to the play or to the playing of it more than it warrants, and is in complete harmony with the play’s time period as well as with the clash of temperaments involved.
Although the timing and the blocking appears severely off in the famed scene in which Kit, fed up with Milly’s bitchery and jealousy, is driven to shaking her friend senseless, the rest of the play delivers all the prescribed punches as well as its occasional poignancies. The laughs, and there are plenty, come frequently enough primarily through the sheer dynamics of Harris’s timing. She is helped considerably in her brilliantly over-the-top performance by the extravagantly outre costumes courtesy of designer David C.Woolard. Just by answering the phone or by crawling up a stairwell with a bottle of scotch in her hand, Harris manages to bring the house down with prolonged laughter, as she also accomplished as Mrs. Meers in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Tony Award) and in the Roundabout’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
If Harris is a hard act to follow let alone hold your own against, then Colin, best recalled in the title role of “Jackie,” is that rare and commendable trouper who can maintain a compelling and stabilizing presence in the midst of a cyclone. The play’s barely credible conflict begins to coagulate as Kit hesitantly mulls over whether to marry Rudd, a man ten years her junior. The conflict further curdles sufficiently when Rudd, while awaiting Kit to make up her mind, suddenly finds himself in love implausibly with Milly’s daughter. Oh dear! Is it time for an intermission, or what?
Diane Davis has her work cut out for her as the pervasively strident romance-starved teen and does it with a minimum of offense; at least once she gets the kiss she so desperately needs from comely Stoll, who delivers the needed testosterone. Stephen Bogardus has a brief but effective scene as Preston Drake, Millie’s ex-husband. Gordana Rashovich and Cynthia Darlow are excellent in their roles, as drolly dutiful employees of Kit and Milly.
For those whose acceptance of frothy mid-summer entertainment knows no restrictions, and for those willing to look beneath the plot’s superficiality, there is the van Druten style to admire and (surprise, surprise) the depth of perception that he shows for his characters. Kit and Milly are ultimately exposed as being much more than their strengths and their weaknesses. By the end, we are impressed with their willingness to effect and accept change. But more importantly, as theatergoers, we are sufficiently sated. HHH
“Old Acquaintance,” Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. Limited engagement through Sunday, August 19. $51.25 to $86.25. 212-719-1300.