In 1906 — well before Noel Coward chronicled the foibles of a divorced couple still in love with another in Private Lives — Langdon Elwyn Mitchell introduced a pair of exes whose lives and emotions are inextricably entwined in The New York Idea, now being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in a new adaptation by Tony Award winner David Auburn. While the production, directed by Mark Brokaw, proves uneven, there is still something satisfying about encountering a play that remains decidedly ahead of its time.
The clash of modernity and old world values is palpable as soon as the curtain rises on the drawing room of a Washington Square townhouse, where the elderly and slightly vapid Mrs. Philimore (Patricia O’Connnell) and the equally gray-haired, and decidedly brittle, Miss Henage (Patricia Conolly) discuss a wedding announcement. Philimore’s son Philip (Michael Countryman) is about to be married, and it’s going to be a tricky proposition: not only has he divorced Vida (Francesca Faridany), but his bride-to-be, Cynthia (Jaime Ray Newman) is a divorcee herself. Whom can one properly invite to the nuptials of these two is the question on the women’s minds.
How Philip and Cynthia do or do not reach the altar becomes the center of the play, especially as both Vida and Cynthia’s ex-husband, John (Jeremy Shamos), seem to be intent on remaining part of their former spouse’s lives. Further roadblocks to the ceremony arise, including the arrival of a British nobleman, Sir Wilfred Cates-Darby (Rick Holmes), who takes an instant romantic interest in Cynthia.
There is also the question of Cynthia and Philip’s compatibility. He’s a staid prig of a judge (two qualities beautifully communicated in Countryman’s reserved performance) and she’s a free spirit, who, when presented with the opportunity to go to the races at Belmont Park, forgets about a previous engagement: her wedding.
It’s a frothy, sophisticated scenario that Auburn has both streamlined and embellished to varying degrees of success. Perhaps most intriguing is how he adds layers of romantic entanglements into the central characters’ lives. There’s almost an incestuous feeling to the ways in which these couples are involved in one another’s worlds. At the same time, though, Auburn’s decision to omit one character from Mitchell’s original script — Philip’s staid sister, whose demeanor and beliefs pointedly contrast with Cynthia and Vida’s — creates an imbalance in the action, compelling Newman and Faridany to create polar opposites of determined women. And while Newman’s spunky, albeit overly contemporary, turn as Cynthia can charm, Faridany’s broad caricature of Vida’s languidness and pretentious manner often grates.
More successful are Shamos and Holmes who find subtle differences in their characters’ exuberance and love-sick ways. Shamos is particularly effective as pangs of anger, desire, and frustration wash over John whenever he’s with, or talking about Cynthia. As the randy British nobleman, who’s finding that the New York ideas of marriage are rather to his liking, Holmes turns in a consistently smile-inducing performance. Equally enjoyable is Joey Slotnick’s work as Philip’s brother, Matthew, a minister with decidedly progressive views, who takes the couples’ confused amorous ways with beaming goodwill.