Sue Jean Kim and John Henry Cox
in The Mail Order Bride
(© Jon Kandel)
Sue Jean Kim and John Henry Cox
in The Mail Order Bride
(© Jon Kandel)
First impressions aren't always right. The initial 10 minutes of Charles Mee's The Mail Order Bride had me convinced I was in for a long evening. The acting was flat, the direction shoddy. Then a curious thing happened; I actually began to enjoy myself. While both acting and direction remained uneven, a few outstanding performances allowed the brilliance of Mee's terrific new play to shine through.

Inspired by Molière's The Imaginary Invalid (which Resonance Ensemble is presenting in rotating repertory with this world premiere), The Mail Order Bride is set in modern-day Brooklyn and tells the story of Argan (John Henry Cox), an older man convinced he can purchase youth through exercise, diet, and marriage to a much younger woman. The intended bride is June (Sue Jean Kim), whose Asian ancestry is one of the qualities Argan thinks will make her a perfect, obedient, and innocent wife. However, on the plane ride to New York, June meets and falls in love with the handsome Jack Horner (Peter McCain). Numerous other romantic entanglements -- including the rivalry between Argan's daughters Susana (Melissa Miller) and Julie (Susan Louise O'Connor) over nebbish caterer Cleante (Booth Daniels) -- supplement the plot, with various characters breaking out into long, poetic digressions on the nature of love.

Mee borrows additional plot elements from Molière's Tartuffe, and the character of Jack Horner is imported from Wycherley's The Country Wife. The playwright also uses some text from a 1950s primer on "How to Be a Good Wife" that's been making the rounds on the Internet (although some claim the document is a fake). Mee's collage-like style of creating theater serves him well here, with all the disparate elements combining to create a delightfully non-traditional script that makes both satiric and sincere observations about marriage, race, love, self-determination, and aging.

The production throws in a few original songs for good measure. The somewhat generic, pre-recorded music is by sound designer Nick Moore, while the humorous lyrics are by Travis Kramer. The routines are campily choreographed by Matthew Henley. Not every song works, but McCain has a hilarious solo called "But If I Did" that's a real show-stopper.

His energetic and playful performance is one of several stand-outs. Kim brings just the right combination of passion, poise, curiosity, and sensuality to her role of June. Daniels only gets one major speech, but he has the audience rolling with laughter as he delivers it. Susan Ferrara, as Argan's sister Harriet, has some great moments, as do Miller and O'Connor as Argan's daughters.

On the downside, Cox is only somewhat effective as Argan. His first appearance is extremely disappointing, and he doesn't have the command of the stage he needs to make some of the play's humor work. However, a later scene between Cox and Kim, in which Argan and June debate what it means to be in love, is perfectly realized.

Jarel Davidow is painfully miscast as Vladimir, a conniving marriage broker who has come up with a devious pre-nuptial agreement that has monumental consequences for Argan. Even though the production's style is hardly naturalistic, the actor plays the role in far too broad a manner. Vivia Font as Argan's nutritionist Tina and Lori McNally as his personal trainer Angie are similarly afflicted. Rounding out the (rather large) cast is James T. Ware as a federal agent who isn't really given a lot to do and makes no major missteps while doing it.

The play is performed on Dustin O'Neill's spacious but rather bland set, which also loses points for obvious warping of the paneling used to create its pillars. Rather than conveying the wealth of Argan's home, this causes the whole thing to seem cheaply constructed. On the other hand, Sidney Shannon has done a nice job on the costumes, particularly the bride's wedding outfit. Aaron J. Mason's lighting is also effective, especially in the segments of the play which break out into fantastical song and dance sequences.

Director Eric Parness has not quite figured out a way to make The Mail Order Bride cohere as a production. There needs to be greater consistency in the acting styles utilized by his cast, and he doesn't need to push the farcical elements as hard as he does. Random pratfalls by O'Connor seem unnecessary, and there's an ill-conceived bit of stage business, in which various characters are distracted by reading magazines, that just doesn't work. There's still enough that's done right in this production to make it worthwhile, but it's frustrating to see a world premiere staging that you just know can be a whole lot better than it is.