Visually stunning as a tableau vivant and as dramatically constrained, the stage adaptation Douglas McGrath has crafted from Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1920 novel “The Age of Innocence” moves gainfully and with notable grace from one plot point to the next like so many animated Cliffs Notes.
The production (a co-production with Hartford Stage) now at the McCarter Theater Center under the sensitive direction of Doug Hughes is offering the audience a taste of Victorian attitudes that drove only the surface of the novel. Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” is noted for its brilliant insight into New York society at the end of the 19th century as one of more than 40 works by the prolific author whose titles also include “Ethan Frome” and “The House of Mirth.”
This is not the first time that the novel has been adapted for the stage, the screen, or TV. It tells a bittersweet story of a young attorney, Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), who, despite being engaged to a lovely socialite, May Welland (Helen Cespedes,) is instantly smitten by May’s alluring cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), when she suddenly returns to her New York family having run away from her abusive husband in Europe. A scandal in the making for sure.
It is performed within an impressive unit setting — designed by the genius John Lee Beatty — that looks like an immense glass pavilion but serves as a grand ballroom as well as other locations by the clever movement and placement of gilded chairs. The setting is enhanced by the beautifully atmospheric lighting designed by Ben Stanton. A pianist (Yan Lil) plays lovely mood music on a baby grand in the rear of the set that underscores various scenes.
The action moves forward with a purposeful narrative provided by an Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines) who plays the older Newland and serves as a guide into the lavish world and lifestyle of this particular family: their manners, mores, and most specifically the machinations that will insure that things don’t change. We are commendably indebted to the always terrific Broadway veteran Gaines as he adds a wry wrinkle to his periodic comments to us. These provide reasons for Newland’s younger self’s emotional investment in an ill-fated love. We are asked to empathize with his agony and frustration. We do.
For her part, Ellen is mostly responsive to Newland’s kindness to her in the light of a family scandal. Played with a captivating sensuality by Boggess, their unconsummated exchanges certainly do suggest they are torn between desire and morality. Only briefly inferred is Ellen’s brave decision to assert her independence in an age of dependency. Noted for her glorious voice, Boggess gets a chance to sing the hit tune de jour, “Beautiful Dreamer,” as a duet with Veenstra.
It is to the production’s benefit that all of the characters who have been preserved from the novel are being played by a company of splendid actors, many of whom play multiple roles as family, friends, and acquaintances. It doesn’t hurt that they are all, despite being only minimally defined, dressed in eye-filling period-perfect attire by costume designer Linda Cho. Life is grand and as dutifully dull for these folk as their obligatory trips to the opera.
Standouts among them are Darrie Lawrence as the wise matriarch Mrs. Manson Mingott and Deirdre Madigan as May’s mother, Mrs. Welland.
And with a lot at stake, May knows more about the unsettling relationship between Newland and Ellen than she would ever admit to anyone. Despite being deceptively coy as well as cunning as May, Cespedes is quite charming.
I am not sure if any stage adaptation or production could capture life at the time as well as did Martin Scorsese in his 1993 film version. While respectable enough as an overview, I’m not sure I was able to see the perspective or the point of McGrath’s adaptation.
I wish that multi-award-winning director Hughes (“Junk” on Broadway last season) and adaptor McGrath might have invested more imagination and theatricality in a production that serves the gentility of the novel but not the possibilities of the stage.
The Age of Innocence, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through October 7. $25 to $80. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.