Harriet Harris and Margaret Colin in Old Acquaintance
(© Joan Marcus)
Harriet Harris and Margaret Colin in Old Acquaintance
(© Joan Marcus)
If you want to know whether a play from the creaky past can be timely, John van Druten's 1940 comedy Old Acquaintance, now being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, provides an answer in the solidly affirmative. The play is the kind of work scorned nowadays because it deals in pat contrivances. Yet its subject matter -- friendship -- never dates. Certainly the women in the audience will recognize the sustained camaraderie examined here and will applaud van Druten's understanding of female bonding.

"Your mother's like family to me," Kit Markham (Margaret Colin) tells Deirdre Drake (Diane Davis) about old pal Mildred Watson Drake (Harriet Harris). "She remembers the same things I do. That's important." The women have had their differences over the years -- and the tempest in the current teapot is that 19-year-old Deirdre would rather live in Kit's paintings-heavy Manhattan apartment than with her mother in Pelham. Moreover, Deirdre doesn't understand why Milly -- a silly and jealous woman and successful best-selling novelist --has lasting meaning for Kit, an author whose critically acclaimed books don't leap up the charts.

Kit, however, finds that her attachment to 10-years-younger publisher Rudd Kendall (Corey Stoll) makes the young woman's presence an inconvenience --despite her fondness for the girl. Kit also knows that Milly cherishes Deirdre -- especially since ex-hubby Preston Drake (Stephen Bogardus) is about to marry a much younger woman.

So during several winter months when Milly rents a Park Avenue flat in which to store herself and Deirdre, the titular acquaintances fray each other's nerves. Simultaneously, Deirdre romances a playboy called Lucian Grant, happily independent Kit decides whether to marry Rudd, and Milly stirs up Preston-related problems with what could be damaging repercussions for the people she supposedly loves. But the disturbances remain drawing-room-comedy-manageable as van Druten works these complications out in dialogue boasting the brittle sheen of a freshly-painted Upper East Side townhouse. No one is meant to be surprised -- or will be -- that Kit and Milly are toasting each other's existence during a final-curtain snowfall.

Old Acquaintance -- best known for its 1943 film version starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins -- is not the first of these kinds of bosom-buddy actor fests. Nor is it the last; the most recent being Terrence McNally's Deuce. And once again, the question becomes: How proficiently are these showy parts played? The answer is very well, under Michael Wilson's smart direction.

As an intelligent woman on to the world -- and to her own strengths and weaknesses -- the perennially underappreciated Colin deals out the knowing subtleties as if dealing a winning hand of poker. Her performance of a woman almost any thinking man would like to marry pronto is flawless.

Harris -- who won a Tony Award for her last Broadway role, the black-lacquer-haired Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie -- has the more flamboyant part; but flamboyance has it pluses and minuses. Mostly, Harris plays the pluses with her comically hard-edged aplomb. She's like a frou-frou dessert toppling under its own weight. Occasionally though, Milly's tantrums tempt Harris to cross the line into excess, and she doesn't resist the temptation.

As the lively others pulled into the two women's dizzying circle, Davis has the boisterous charm of adolescence; Stoll is a manly dreamboat with his own intelligent exuberance; and Bogardus executes his one scene with the right dash of irritated authority.

Old Acquaintance also wracks up points in its favor as a piece that offers designers a chance to have boundless fun. Alexander Dodge constructs not one but two commodious apartments: one a writer's lived in-lair and one an interior decorator's delight. The audience gets to wonder how one set makes room for the other during the two intermissions of the three-act play. Costume designer David C. Woolard gleefully dresses one modest-income woman with good taste and a chinchilla-rich one with perfectly dreadful taste.

If you've ever known someone you'd like to give a good shake but have had to suppress the urge, Old Acquaintance is the summer diversion for you.