The Awful Truth
Directed by Michael Hardart
Through October 18
How well do you know your own mind and memory? Have you ever repainted your own deeds with rosier colors? Has your sense of disappointment ever been so crushing that you felt you couldn’t trust any of your other thoughts? Arthur Richman’s play The Awful Truth asked these timeless questions in 1922, and it holds up as a seriocomic meditation on them. The Metropolitan Playhouse is now offering a consistently good, sometimes sterling, production of the work, best known to most audiences as a 1937 “screwball comedy” film with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.
Both the play and film pivot on stormy relationships and infidelity, but the play is shorter on plot, and spends more time examining the social context of its era and the emotions that shape the characters’ struggle. In it, a divorced socialite, Lucy Warriner, is set to marry self-made Oklahoma oil tycoon Daniel (“Dan”) Leeson, and his proper aunt wants to make double-sure her divorce wasn’t the result of some unseemly hanky-panky. The nephew and aunt even drag in Lucy’s ex, Norman Satterly, and relentlessly press the two for reassurance, setting off a wave of he-said, she-said debate that makes the characters relive their grief and wallow in their greatest anxieties.
This could all be terribly maudlin the wrong hands, but it is strong performances, under the sure hand of director Michael Hardart, that really clinch this production’s success. I could say good things about everyone, but I’ll focus on some of the main players: Alexandra O’Daley is probably the most naturalistic of the cast as Lucy, betraying some residual 20-something rambunctiousness under her jaded insouciance; Lucy’s brother, Eustace, a milquetoast heir to privilege whom Lucy loves to snipe at, gets unnervingly convincing treatment from Benjamin Russell; and J. Stephen Brantley steals the show as Dan, the oilman. With his fulsome, cigar-chomping masculinity, Brantley may be the most cartoonish of the lot, but he has very funny timing and makes it work. His accent seemed more Southern plantation owner than bootstrapping Midwesterner, which slightly weakened the important Old Money/New Money undercurrent to the conflict, but that was as far as my quibbles went.
The visuals of the play deserve special mention. From the moment you walk into the very small theater — it can’t be more than 80 seats — a grand set, full of painstaking grace notes, defies this restriction. I could spend half this review on Alex Roe’s labor of love if space allowed. The action changes location between the first and second acts, and I won’t spoil exactly how that’s accomplished, but I had to resist the urge to give a premature standing ovation. The sumptuous period costumes are as impressive as the set: in one example, Norman (the ex-husband) changes from plum-colored trousers, crimson necktie and tweed sport coat to a three-piece suit in the course of a single day, which is an idle-rich detail that Sidney Fortner could easily have dispensed with, but didn’t.
And what of the play’s resonance for us now? As much as today’s culture wars are on our minds, both the permissive attitudes of the 1920s and the reaction against them were presumably of concern to original audiences. I forgot that the regular drinking throughout the play was illegal until an exchange with the oilman’s aunt (a fine Emily Jon Mitchell). This is a prim, no-nonsense matriarch, active with the Ladies’ Auxiliary, and just the type that would have wanted to ban alcohol. Norman takes a dig at the aunt’s insufferable moralizing about Proper Relationships, pleading resentfully, “You’ve already taken away our liquor; are you going to deprive us of everything else?”
The exchange is both dated and evergreen, and seems to beg the old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The screwball comedy more or less allows relationships, and their betrayals, to remain the business of any and all lovers involved. Hypocrisy is a straightforward, vaguely universal sin in the movie: the voice teacher Irene Dunne’s character is fooling around with protests, “I’ve never been involved in a scandal!” to which Cary Grant’s husband character instantly retorts, “You’ve never been caught.” This seems tame next to a much more subversive, layered, even Oscar Wilde-ish, exchange in the original play: The aunt huffs, “Indiscretion is a great sin in society!” and the accused socialite smirks, “Indiscretion is the only sin in society.” What Indiscretion and Society are we talking about?
Indiscretions often uncover awful truths, and the title of the play is nominally about the anguish of love betrayed and shame before society. Surely, though, it can allude to each of our individual struggles to reconcile ourselves to our individual truths. By the time 1937 rolled around — a bad year, even for the Depression — the Awful Truth was one of grinding poverty, and it was precisely what people went to the movies to escape. Now that economic inequality is back at Gilded Age levels, the bread has gotten sweeter and the circuses more spectacular to effect widespread distraction. There are many awful truths out there now, and it looks like it will take a committed minority to face them down.