The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue
David Grimm's modern-day Molière adaptation is a wonderfully witty romp.
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.