The English writer Christopher Fry was the preeminent author of verse drama in the 20th century. But, excepting an ardent cult of followers, few people remember Fry these days, and the genre is barely recognized in the modern theater. Verse Theater Manhattan aims to change that by presenting some of the best verse plays to New York audiences--something they have been doing for nearly four years now. The company's production of Fry's Venus Observed is its latest offering, playing this month at the Wings Theater on Christopher Street.
Venus Observed concerns the Duke of Altair, a charming, aging man who asks that his son Edgar choose for him a wife from three lovely candidates. But when the bright and lively Perpetua, daughter of the Duke's business associate Reedbeck (who happens to be embezzling from him), shows up unexpectedly, both father and son find themselves smitten and vying for her affection. A total eclipse of the sun, a house fire, and the eccentricities of servants and house guests alike are the cause of confusion and comedy as the play unfolds.
Given this description, Venus Observed may sound like a very English drawing room comedy, with its silly love story and period setting. But Fry's work here stands out for being extremely, though quite subtly, hilarious. There's more going on here than mismatched lovers stumbling about: an amusing and well-developed premise, intriguing characters, sharp wit, and insight to the human heart and mind. All of this gives the piece a surprising depth.
That's not to say that Venus Observed doesn't falter here and there. Some aspects of this production feel uneven, with certain sections going on too long or plot points flying by a bit quickly; but it's hard to decide whether the inconsistencies are the fault of James Milton's generally solid direction, the play itself, or the performances. Certainly, some of the actors are more successful in mining the brilliance of Fry's dialogue than others--and, when these people are center stage, the play is at its most engaging.
Britta Jepsen as Perpetua is a standout, as are Jennifer Dorr White and Maren Maclean as the Duke's potential brides. Also notable is Cameron Francis as the cheating Reedbeck's son, Dominic, who is morally upright to a fault. Despite his cold and awkward delivery, Francis' Dominic is in a constant fluster, tightening and scrunching his face in consternation, always appearing to be on the verge of fainting from the endless battle with evil that he alone must fight. And Jo Barrick as the sweet-natured, mousy Jessie Dill is the production's greatest asset, managing to extract maximum comic mileage out of the simplest lines through her skillful performance.