This rarely revived play seems at first to be a curious, even dangerously ill-conceived, choice for the Pearl Theatre Company, a group on far more intimate terms with Shaw and Sheridan than La Hellman. Yet, under Austin Pendleton's remarkably assured direction, the Pearl's core players -- here freed of corsets and foppery -- serve up unusually vivid portraits of Hellman's unhappy souls, who find that getting what you wish for (or claim to wish for) is little more than a cruel joke.
For many years, the spinster Bernier sisters, Anna (Robin Leslie Brown) and Carrie (Rachel Botchan), have toiled, scrimped, and saved to provide comfort and cash for their ne'er-do-well baby brother Julian (Sean McNall), all the while talking about going to Europe just as Chekhov's sisters spoke of going to Moscow. Carrie, the younger sister, seems particularly overprotective of Julian -- and as Hellman makes clear later in the play, her interest in him goes beyond the bounds of sibling propriety.
Julian has left the family nest a year before the play starts, having moved to Chicago with his much-younger, very wealthy, and none-too-stable bride Lily (Ivy Vahanian). But he suddenly returns to the family's uncomfortable home (nicely designed by Harry Feiner) bearing extravagant gifts, those long-wished-for boat tickets to Europe, and an enormous wad of cash. He swears his new-found fortune is the result of a mysterious real-estate deal, and not, as in the past, the winnings of a high-stakes poker game. However, his largesse is greeted with suspicion by his family, and Julian -- desperate to finally become the man of the house -- is still treated as a willful child.
Meanwhile, the ever-more-frantic Lily now appears convinced that Julian married her only for her money, despite the not-necessarily-truthful reassurances of her eccentric mother, Albertine (Joanne Camp), who is carrying on an affair with the family's hard-hearted black chauffeur Henry (Robert Colston). Practically crazed with jealousy, Lily fixates on Julian's unseen female partner in his real estate deal, and her insecurity -- coupled with Carrie's vindictiveness and unrequited lust -- ultimately lead all involved to a decidedly unhappy ending.
In addition to working outside their usual dramatic realm, the Pearl's cast deserve brownie points for being willing to compete with their esteemed predecessors in the roles; the Broadway production starred Jason Robards Jr., Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere (who won the Tony Award for her work as Anna), and Irene Worth; while George Roy Hill's completely recast 1963 film version featured Dean Martin, Geraldine Page, Wendy Hiller, and Gene Tierney.
Yet, there's never any sense of fear or tentativeness in their performances. (The biggest problem is they all use completely different Southern accents, with McNall's often sounding uncomfortably Brandoesque.) Brown, who bears the weight of the world with her every movement and completely masters Anna's too-tired-to-care delivery, is devastating, especially in the end-of-the-play moment when she finally articulates the major mistake she's made in her life. Botchan is slightly less effective as Carrie, although she captures the character's contradiction of exterior perkiness and interior rage. McNall brings the right dash of charm to Julian. Yet, while the character may be the play's focus, it is also the least successfully written.
By design or not, Albertine and Lily emerge as the most fascinating personae on stage. Camp is simply brilliant as a woman aware of all her shortcomings as a mother and who knows her too-little-too-late efforts to help her daughter won't prevent the inevitable tragedy. Vahanian (a guest artist for this production) successfully embodies this girl-woman who truly knows what she's doing and is yet powerless to stop her own harmful actions.
Mind you, the audience is likely to leave the Pearl with much more sympathy for these pathetic people than Hellman likely ever had for them. She figured they got what they've deserved. Luckily for us, Hellman's little-seen play is getting the treatment it deserves.