Nancy Bell, Annalee Jefferies, and Pamela Payton-Wrightin The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Nancy Bell, Annalee Jefferies, and Pamela Payton-Wright
in The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
If you're going to rewrite the masters, you'd better be awfully witty. In adapting Molière's Femmes savants into a delightful confection called The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, David Grimm proves himself to be rather witty, not to mention humane and insightful. He exhibits the same fondness for the foibles of flibbertigibbet bluestockings that informed Molière's work, so that instead of a mean-spirited sendup of pseudo-intellectual pretension, what we have here is a timeless romp with just a bit of bite to it.

Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson's world-premiere production cleaves to perfection from word one. Actually, it opens with a gavotte without words, as the blissed-out young Betty Crystal (Nicole Lowrance) caroms around Tony Straiges' gorgeous, white-on-white, Louis XVI-meets-Deco set, flashing her brand-new engagement ring at the maid, the butler, and finally the audience. This sequence is indicative of the treats in store: cascades of brittle rhymed couplets declaimed with perfectly plummy Upper East Side-via-Hollywood accents -- no doubt honed and homogenized by dialogue coach Deborah Dallas Cooney. Aurally, visually, and emotionally, there's nary a false note to break the mood.

Among the well-oiled ensemble are some superb actors. They include Nancy Bell as Ramona, Betty's snooty older sister; Annalee Jefferies as their mother, a self-appointed arbiter of all that is culturally up-to-snuff (she's supremely silly and obtuse); Tom Bloom as Papa Crystal, a canned-bean czar who's somewhat lacking in the spine department, at least on the home front; and Zach Shaffer as Betty's would-be beau, dashing as an old Arrow shirt ad.

The opposition is formidable in the form of fulminating fop Upton Gabbitt, whom Betty's mama intends to anoint as her son-in-law. If David Greenspan's performance disappoints; he's a bit mannered, whereas the others manage to make their carefully metered antics seem organic. Gabbitt is such a juicy part that you can't help wanting to see it played to perfection. The hideous poems with which Grimm equips the character are works of perverse genius, and Gabbitt's literary tiff with arch-rival T. S. Baines (Bill Kux, a bit wobbly at this early stage of the run) is priceless. Broadway veteran Pamela Payton-Wright has the cushy role of Aunt Sylvia, an over-the-hill femme-not-so-fatale laboring under the delusion that all men are inexorably attracted to her. Though the actress is shaky in handling iambic quadrameter, she does capture the character's ever-hopeful loopiness.

The unseen hero of the piece is the playwright himself, who manages to weave 1930s vernacular into endlessly clever pairings -- the apogee has got to be "raison d'être / you betcha," followed closely by "schnorrer / fedora" -- while moving the action briskly along. In froth of this sort, is there any doubt that true love will win out? No. You can relax and enjoy Grimm's verbal legerdemain, secure in the knowledge that these fools and poseurs will get their comeuppance. If the world works as it ought to, this bagatelle ought to bounce to the big city before long. In the interim, it's definitely worth a pilgrimage to Hartford.