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The Arts
December 6-12, 2006

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'The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue'

Photograph by David Allen
Moonlighting: Julia Motyka and Darren Bridgett trip the light fantastic in 'The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue.'

'Learned' Curves

TheatreWorks plays word games with David Grimm's rhyming farce, 'The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue'

By Marianne Messina

EVEN SCENE changes look like fun in TheatreWorks' West Coast premiere of The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue as the Crystals' maid (Fiona Cheung) and butler (Nick Nakashima) dance across the bold Art Deco penthouse to jazzy big-band music. Set in the realms of upper-class opulence, this 1930s take on Molière's 17th-century play The Learned Ladies (Les Femmes Savantes) is smart and sharp, and flows breezily as music. Family members of the wealthy bean magnate Henry Crystal (Warren David Keith) enter through mile-high doorways decorated in metallic chevrons. They stride up expansive steps to a grand piano sitting before giant glass doors and, beyond those, a balcony where the tops of skyscrapers suggest a city overlook (Joe Ragey, fab set design).

Phoebe Moyer plays a powerful grand dame, Phyllis Crystal, formidable in temper, elegant in dress (oh, that black-lace jacket), but pretentious in intellect. She keeps her husband, Henry, intimidated in his own home (and we know that any Molièrean woman with those credentials is riding for a fall). Phyllis holds salons in her library featuring such self-aggrandizing cretins as the poet Upton Gabbitt (Brian Herndon, played with faux mole on his face and a lone curl on his forehead). (Actually, I rather liked Gabbitt's "Ode to a Lost Shoe": "Oh, thou lost and soleless loafer ...")

While Gabbitt has Phyllis spellbound, he's busy trying to marry into the family money by way of daughter Betty (a squeaky-voiced Kristin Stokes). Stokes, more Betty Boop than Henriette, her 17th-century prototype, makes lovable shrugs and winces to punctuate or perk up the witticisms going on around her. In spite of Mom's wishes, Betty loves Dicky Mayhew (Darren Bridgett), a hard-working stiff who doesn't have two nickels to rub together. The rival suitors line up, Phyllis championing Gabbitt, and Henry championing Dicky, and it's up to the classic false-letter device to unmask imposters, depose usurpers and marry off lovers.

Playwright David Grimm has challenged the actors by writing his clever script in tetrameter verse with rhyming couplets. Instead of simply "handling" the language, this cast plays with it, sometimes with sliding enjambment through the end rhymes for a more natural feel, other times flaunting the contrived rhymes by pouncing on end stops with glee. Played with verve, characters seem as amused as they are amusing. Maureen McVerry wears dimpled mischief the way actor Alan Cumming does, and she makes Betty's self-adoring Aunt Sylvia pure fun; plus she gets to wear some of Fumiko Bielefeldt's fru-fruiest creations. Bielefeldt is in her glory with this era of velvet formal wear and silky smoking jackets for men; baroque jewelry and svelte form-hugging satin for women.

On opening night, the kitchen argument between the inflated Phyllis and her deflatable husband Henry roused the audience to laughter and clapping. Phyllis wants to fire Magda the cook (Nancy Sauder) for being so lowbrow as to read movie magazines (the "meathead," the "impudent baggage"). Henry simply wants his tasty dinners—"I'd rather a yokel who cooks a good roast" (than an intellect who burns the toast). When Henry finally tells Phyllis off, someone in the audience yelled "bravo" followed by applause.

Another animated bout of humorous wordplay comes when the ladies' cultured salon erupts in an impromptu poetry slam between featured poet Gabbitt and the self-invited celebrity wordsmith T.S. Bains (Colin Thomson). Needless to say, the lofty rhyme battle de-escalates into something more "of the body." Pairing '30s intellectuals' affinity for communism with the rising anti-aristocrat sentiments in Molière's France, Grimm, like Molière, lampoons the hypocrisy of ideologues whose practices contradict what they preach. TheatreWorks adds its own panache to Grimm's linguistic romp, and if claps, laughs and outcries from an audience say anything, the result is a winner.

The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm (except Dec. 19), Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Dec. 23 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$56. (650.903.6000)

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