The Fatal Weakness
The Mint Theater Company holds a unique place in New York’s theater scene. Since 1992, their mission has involved creating vibrant revivals of “worthy but neglected” older plays. Over the years, they have had more hits than misses, and now they have struck gold once again with this shiny production of George Kelly’s 1946 seriocomedy, The Fatal Weakness. If Oscar Wilde had been writing in post-World War II America, his work might have resembled this. There is a stately women delivering bon mots about the human condition, a bumbling philanderer of a husband, as well as a pretty and daddy-doting daughter, but here each are revealed to have the kind of sad inner-life that one might find in the characters of, say, Arthur Miller.
The play is structured as a sitting room comedy in three acts (and two intermissions, a nod to the fact that most audience members at the Mint are usually as vintage as the show itself). The majority of the action takes place off stage, then characters drop by explaining where they have been and what they have seen, or else a letter arrives with important information, or there is a phone call, and then another, and then another. This particular sitting room happens to belong to one Mrs. Ollie Espenshade (Kristin Griffith) and over the two month course of the play the whirlwind of news that blows her way will tilt her settled suburban life irrevocably. Her marriage of 28 years, and marriage in general, is poked and prodded from every angle. Is it that anyone married that long must have given up on finding anyone else, for better or worse; is it an “arrestment of the spirit” or is marriage simply a habit; or is being sentimental, as Ollie explains to her angry and lovelorn daughter Penny (Victoria Mack), the same as being morally responsible?
Griffith looks, moves, sounds and radiates charm like a Hollywood actress of the era. We first see her in white silk, with shoulder pads and pearls, looking as art deco and upright as the Chrysler building, her Ollie maintaining a stiff upper lip as the world she has built around her slowly begins to crumble. She seems strong enough to handle the evidence of her husband Paul’s indiscretions, but then it turns out she has been secreting off to the weddings of strangers for desperate doses of romance. Cliff Bemis, as Paul, is a bit one dimensional at first, in the short time he has to establish character in Act One. But he totally redeems himself in the play’s most splendidly staged moment, at the end of Act Two. Sitting on the sofa and looking off into space, he lies to Ollie about his upcoming plan to spend time with a male golf buddy, growing ever more wistful as he details his agenda. Ollie, standing behind him and fully aware of what Paul is actually thinking, is silent, but her large eyes grow moist as the stage becomes bathed in rose-colored lighting while soft, discordant piano music creeps in.
When not dealing with her immediate family, Ollie keeps company with some fine supporting characters. Most notably, there is her best friend and chief gossip monger, Mabel, played uproariously and with perfect comic timing by Broadway veteran Cynthia Darlow. She also receives a visit from her earnest son-in-law Vernon, in too short of an appearance by Sean Patrick Hopkins. And then there is her maid, Anna (Patricia Kilgarriff), endlessly enduring all the doorbell buzzing and flower arranging while listening in to her employer’s private affairs. Kilgarriff is workmanlike, but fails to find anything new in a stock character that could have been much funnier. Andrea Varga’s costumes are simply lovely, and Vicki R. Davis’ clever set design involves numerous angled, mirrored walls upon which the characters often turn, trying to see themselves as they actually are.
The Fatal Weakness – by George Kelly; Directed by Jesse Marchese
WITH: Cliff Bemis (Mr. Paul Espenshade), Cynthia Darlow (Mrs. Mabel Wentz), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. Ollie Espenshade), Sean Patrick Hopkins (Vernon Hassett), Patricia Kilgarriff (Anna), Victoria Mack (Penny Hassett).
Scenic design by Vicki R. Davis; Costume design by Andrea Varga; lighting by Christian DeAngelis; Sound by Jane Shaw; Stage manager, Rhonda Picou; at the Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, 866-811-4111, Through October 12th, http://minttheater.org, Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes