Sean McNall and Carolyn McCormick in Biography
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Sean McNall and Carolyn McCormick in Biography
(© Gregory Costanzo)
It's not unusual after a playwright's death for his or her work to be reassessed negatively and then put on an out-of-reach shelf to gather dust quietly. That's pretty much what happened to S. N. Behrman, who died in 1973 after having had some 20 of his comedies successfully produced on Broadway with the finest stars of the era (such as Lynne Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, and Ruth Gordon) adorning them. You could say that after having been the toast of the Great White Way, he was suddenly just toast.

Fortunately, the Pearl Theatre Company's thoroughly slick and thoroughly entertaining production of his 1932 comedy Biography confirms that the playwright deserves an updated review.

Indeed, the urbane Samuel Nathaniel Behrman even bears a favorable comparison to William Shakespeare, in that he shared the Bard's belief that women are innately wiser than men. Biography's Marion Froude (Carolyn McCormick), an artist and illustrator, is a smart cookie who sees through the foolish men gathering around her like dazed bees in a late-summer garden. The only problems which she encounters are not of her own devising, but are caused by the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the self-impressed males who've fallen for her charms, whether they admit it or not.

In Biography, Marion agrees to write her life story for the magazine edited by proudly incorruptible Richard Kurt (Sean McNall). Complications arise when first love Leander Nolan (Tom Galantich) gets wind of the memoirs and worries that Marion's revelations could jeopardize not only his upcoming Senate race but his engagement to Slade Kinnicott (Kyra Miller), the daughter of his major backer Orrin Kinnicott (George McDaniel). Meanwhile, her Viennese composer pal Melchior Feydak (Dominic Cuskern) passes through amiably, screen idol Warwick Wilson (Fletcher McTaggart) briefly preens, and her grumpy German maid Minnie (Carol Schultz) doesn't bother keeping her disapproving opinions to herself.

Like his drawing-room comedy colleagues of the 1920s and 1930s, Behrman was interested in the impact of changing manners and mores. The way he approached the clash between unconventional and conventional behavior was to make fun of it on the surface while contriving to send audiences home with something to think about. In her lived-in-looking artist's lair (evocatively designed by Harry Feiner), Marion makes mincemeat of human foibles while also gallantly forgiving them. Behrman obviously considered clear-headed understanding of human nature necessary in the face of dire times and endowed the gloriously independent Marion with it.

When Biography opened on Broadway, the adored Ina Claire played Marion, a character likely modeled after Neysa McMein, well-known at the time for executing her illustrations and portraits in a West 57th Street warren. McCormick may be no Ina Claire, but she doesn't need to be.

Tall, hoydenish, and possessing a jutting chin of great conviction, she lopes across the stage and perches on sofa arms with marvelous self-possession. As she spouts Behrman's dialogue with its chiseled Baccarat ring, her eyes twinkle. She's unutterably a woman who wraps men around her finger whenever she so chooses. Moreover, director J. R. Sullivan has cleverly gotten the entire cast to perform at McCormick's exalted level.

Is there anything wrong with Biography? As a matter of fact, there is -- but it has nothing to do with Sullivan's well-nigh perfect version and everything to do with Behrman. His title is incorrect. Since Marion Froude is paid the princely sum of $2000 to write her own history, she's preparing an autobiography. How the late, Harvard-educated author got that wrong will have to remain a mystery. Fortunately, this sublime play no longer needs to remain one.