The action is set just after the turn of the 20th century, when theater was still considered a cesspool for sinners and harlots. Young Evelyn Nesbit (Kit Paquin) bills herself as that rare commodity, a virgin actress; many potential suitors rise to the challenge, including star architect Stanford White (Mark Pinter) and the eccentric millionaire Harry K. Thaw (Tim Altmeyer). Famous for designing several New York landmarks, White has forbidden designs on the underage chanteuse but must figure out a way to get past the girl's mother (Catherine Lynn Dowling), not to mention his unsuspecting wife. Thaw has obstacles of his own to face in the pursuit of Evelyn, including his utter lack of charm and his disapproving mother (Annette Hunt).
This love triangle, which created a scandal in the 1900s, may well cause people to stifle yawns today, despite the best efforts of the production team to create a torrid atmosphere. The set (designed by Mark Synczak) is dominated by red velvet, from the curtains held together by golden tassels to the cloths on the lounge tables to the bed sheets. Lighting designer Randy Glickman keeps the moon's mystical light shining throughout, and video designer Tim Cramer projects scene titles above the stage in the style of tabloid headlines. Composer Tom Berger has provided appealing music that he himself plays live on piano.
Unfortunately, all of this goes only so far in masking the weaknesses of the anemic script. Nigro may have intended "He wanted me so naked that I wasn't wearing a hairpin" to be an erotically charged line, but that image lost its ability to titillate decades ago. Elsewhere in the play, we get caricatured portrayals of S&M in the style of "scare" films such as Reefer Madness, and Nigro's treatment of gender roles is equally broad: The female characters are ingénues, naïfs, and prigs, while all of the male characters are predators. Worse still, the playwright opts for labored one-liners rather than naturally flowing dialogue.
As Evelyn, Paquin has bland delivery and repetitive mannerisms; every time she sits down on an ottoman, she strikes the same pose, with her back slightly tilted and her chin on her fist. (Under Amy Feinberg's direction, much of the show is equally stagy.) Pinter's take on her older beau also lacks variety, but the actor makes up for it somewhat with his soap-opera charm. Altmeyer has the unenviable task of portraying the clownish character of Thaw, and he at least deserves credit for doing it without self-consciousness. Both Hunt and Dowling make the most of their slight roles.
The production has its merits, the strongest of which is that it mines some interesting history. Many New Yorkers will be curious to learn about the architect behind some of the city's most famous structures, from the Washington Square arch to the original Madison Square Garden. The show's title comes from a popular James Thornton song of the era, which we hear toward the beginning, but neither Nigro or the Hypothetical Theatre Company make that era come alive.
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