The Playgoer: Playing "Period"

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Playing "Period"

I haven't seen the Roundabout revival of the 1940 comedy "Old Acquaintance"--which even Clive Barnes, in a one-star(!) review, calls "inexplicable"--but I think Ben Brantley puts his finger on something broader in the following critique:

Playing combative best friends of long standing, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris share a stage and star billing in the handsomely upholstered production that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, directed by Michael Wilson. But they are living in different time zones.

Ms. Colin comfortably inhabits the era in which the play is set; she makes the decades fall away. Ms. Harris presents the same world through the perspective of a contemporary comedian who has watched a lot of old movies; she makes a distant age look even more distant. Fans of fine-grained acting will admire Ms. Colin, while fans of diva-spoofing drag queens may well adore Ms. Harris.

Lesson: nothing makes a period piece seem more dated than trying to play the "period." Rather, as the most effective recent revivals have shown ("Journey's End," "Dark at the Top of the Stairs") nothing makes an old chestnut seem more "relevant" than pure simple honesty.

Even in such seemingly exaggerated times as Restoration London and Roaring Twenties Chicago, people still had genuine unforced emotions. Honesty is never anachronistic.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Beautifully stated!

Anonymous said...


I love your site. But you haven't seen the play yet. You should feel unqualified to comment on its virtues or shortcomings until you do.

Don't be so quick to agree with Mr. Brantley sight unseen. Knowing him, he probably attended the wrong play--still blinded by his love for Julia! He's not the sharpest quill under the feather.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I think you're perfectly qualified to make the comment you have (it's not as if you commented directly on the show's performance itself). You don't have to see a show to draw your excellent conclusion.

Playgoer said...

Anon--Can I make it any clearer that my comments are NOT directed at this particular show? I'm merely extracting Brantley's comment in order to draw a general principle from it that I think is applicable to many performances.

Sorry if quoting and giving a platform for Brantley's criticism upsets fans of Harris and/or the show. (Although, please, compare my platform to the one the NYT already gives him.) But I think a sober objective reading of my comments are not referencing them at all.

Anonymous said...


Could you make your comments any clearer?

Well since you've asked, yes, of course you could. You are a much better writer and critic than Ben Brantley, so I don't think it is beyond you. Him we have to make allowances for. In fact I think the NYT should dress him in a padded suit in case he finds any sharp objects during the course of his day.

Anyway, I get your point. I got it the first time. So let me see if I can be any clearer. I don't do this for a living, so I make no promises. But I'll try:

I still think by using the specific names that Brantley opines upon, you unintentionally carry his criticism further than you should. Assuming you go and see the play, you may totally disagree with him. But you will have already used Ms. Harris as an unfair example. To draw the lesson, you assume that Ms. Harris is guilty of the transgression he accuses her of.

It's rather like when Fox News says Iraq was invaded because of WMD. And the Iraqis say they didn't have any WMD. And the lesson you draw is "if you live in a peaceful democracy you won't need any WMD."

In the above scenario, PG, you are the lesson, Ms. Harris (whose performance I haven't seen) is Iraq, and Ben Brantley is the demon sin-child of Saddam and George W. Bush.


Playgoer said...

Anon--Well, I can't say your Iraq analogy is clear to me. But I can see where my original comments might have given the wrong impression, and so maybe I wasn't as clear as I hoped.

So let me state it now--I couldn't care less if Harriet Harris' performance is anything like Brantley says it is. All I know is when I read his critique it totally reminded me of countless other performances I have seen. So I took his quote admittedly out of context just to talk about that point.

Again, I have no comment on the "Old Acquaintance" production and no wish to make any comment on it, positive or negative. I'm much more interested in spurring a conversation on how actors in general approach period plays.

In other words I feel Brantley's point is valid about performances in general, EVEN IF he's not fair to Ms Harris.


BTW, thanks for the compliment, but for the record I actually think Brantley is a terrific writer and I enjoy reading him, even envy the ease of his style and readability sometimes. His content, however, I often completely disagree with.

Anonymous said...

Okay, truce.

I'm glad we're friends again.