Molly Ringwald in Enchanted April(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Molly Ringwald in Enchanted April
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Enchantment is a swell topic for the theater, which often works its own kind of magic; but there's precious little that's enchanting about Enchanted April, Matthew Barber's adaptation of the 1922 Elizabeth von Arnim novel of the same title. At best, there's a wan charm to this under-budgeted production, for which 12 producers and four associate producers have been corralled to foot the bill.

Enchanted April was first filmed in 1935 as a vehicle for then-popular Ann Harding and re-made in 1992 by Mike Newell and cinematographer Rex Maidment with attention paid to the beauty of Northern Italy as seen by visiting Brits. The English, of course, have long regarded Siena and surrounding areas as the place to go for spiritual and emotional rejuvenation after Blighty's annual chilblains weather, and von Arnim -- born Mary Beauchamp in Australia -- counted on that predilection to help her book make its effect.

Nowadays, the term for such travel is "doing a geographic" and usually has a somewhat negative connotation. In 2003, a "wherever you go, there you are" attitude prevails; taking one's problems along with the Louis Vuitton baggage is considered more the norm than the likelihood of being able to enjoy a genuine respite from domestic woes. (Check out Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, set in Siena, for corroboration.) But von Arnim extolled the possibility of travel transformation in crafting her jolly tale of two dissatisfied Hampstead housewives who rent a villa on the (Amalfi?) coast after reading about it in a London Times advert aimed at "those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine."

Since Lotty Wilton (Jayne Atkinson) and Rose Arnott (Molly Ringwald) can't afford the 60-pound fee themselves, they invite cantankerous Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ashley) and troubled rich girl Lady Caroline Bramble (Dagmara Dominczyk) to share their holiday. Initially, only Lotty feels the locale's liberating effects, and only in-situ housemaid-cook Costanza (Patricia Conolly) supplies caustic gaiety in pidgin English. But after not too many clement days pass, Rose, Lady Caroline, and Mrs. Graves also begin to loosen the stays on their figurative corsets. Actually, Lady Caroline -- wearing a '20s bob and revealing satin pajamas -- has long since let herself run wild and is trying to recover.

Things improve further when Lotty's stuffy husband Mellersh (Michael Cumpsty) and Rose's worse half, the womanizing romance/biography author Frederick (Daniel Gerroll), arrive to take the air and the waters. Also dropping by for an extended stay is Antony Wilding (Michael Hayden), a photographer who calls the villa, San Salvatore, his home. (Personal salvation is, of course, the point here.) Mellersh does embarrass himself in a sequence involving an exploding water heater, and Frederick, who writes under the name Florian Ayers, seems known by that pseudonym to Lady Caroline. But these flies in the balmy ointment quickly give way to positive conclusions.

A few factors keep this romantic comedy from repeating the success of Newell's breathtakingly beautiful flick. Perhaps the most succinct way of saying it would be to quote an audience member who remarked while exiting the theater, "It has a beginning and an end but no middle." Enchanted April has a thoroughly disenchanting kick-off that, as it happens, takes up the entire first act; for longer than necessary, Lotty and Rose confront their husbands' disregard in England while sound designer John Gromada's rain and thunder underline the marital discord. Will the women go through with their scheme and, if so, will they approve Mrs. Graves and Lady Caroline for time shares?

The process -- which a more inventive dramatist (this is Barber's first work) could outline in a matter of minutes -- might seem less tedious, however, were it not entirely played downstage in front of a claustrophobic black wall and with the characters shuffling continuously between two round Victorian tables and a few Chippendale-like chairs. When Act II commences, playwright Barber skips over any real complications and proceeds in a manner having more to do with expedience than enchantment to the attitude changes undergone by the vacationers.

As for that sunny second act, set designer Tony Straiges obviously saved whatever cash he could for his depiction of San Salvatore. Yet the site, revealed when the show-scrim rises, is still not as beautiful as the audience has a right to expect. High above the wide patio, Straiges has hung a few cursory wisteria vines that are outdone by the huge cabbage roses he has painted on the villa exterior. There's an arched promenade up a few steps, and dainty sculptures placed here and there. (A Madonna painting said to resemble Rose is discussed but never seen.) The rather dim domicile is definitely brightened by Rui Rita's lighting. Still, there's no getting around the sense that if these thin walls could speak, they'd say: "Do more with us!"

Elizabeth Ashley in Enchanted April(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Elizabeth Ashley in Enchanted April
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Director Michael Wilson pumps adrenaline into the proceedings as regularly as possible. The couple of minutes during which Michael Cumpsty as a nearly naked Mellersh turns to a towel and a hat for cover is convincingly comical. Wilson stages an Act I confrontation between Lotty and Mellersh and Rose and Frederick as a lively, cross-cut interlude. And, presumably, it was Wilson who has encouraged the actors to bring to the largely moribund action as much energy as they can muster.

He has dependable performers on hand. Jayne Atkinson, balking at household chores much more than she was called on to do earlier this season as Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town, is chatty and cheery. She makes something solid from an opening monologue that lays out the direction in which the play is heading by way of a symbolic anecdote about a walking stick that metamorphoses into a blossoming acacia tree. (Get it? Enchanted April is about seemingly lifeless objects coming to bloom.)

Elizabeth Ashley, who affects a hobbled stride as Mrs. Graves, finds new methods of commanding attention no matter what she's playing, and this assignment is no exception. The same holds true of Daniel Gerroll, Michael Hayden, and Michael Cumpsty, all three of whom are alive with appeal and grace and who were undoubtedly hired for their ability to lend those attributes to characters sorely requiring them. Dagmara Dominczyk has the piquant face and bearing of a flapper who's not so much flapping as flailing.

Spouting basic Italian and fractured English as Costanza, Patricia Conolly (whose Playbill bio is in Italian), gets the audience on her side as these kinds of amusingly insolent maids in these kinds of plays usually do. Molly Ringwald seems to have an easier time playing the furled Rose than the Rose fully open. She also might want to have a word with costume designer Jess Goldstein, who has outfitted her towards the finale in a lime-green dress that bulges at the waist as if she has liposuctionable love handles. The rest of Goldstein's contributions look as if they came from all the appropriate Harrods departments for the jazzy period's middle and upper classes.

Given the high expectations raised by a dramatized version of von Arnim's satisfying exercise in resuscitated love, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that April is the cruelest month.