When in 1920 Edith Wharton published The Age of Innocence, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, she was commenting on the 1870s gilded age already some 50 years behind her and the country. It was a time against which she, born in 1862, had long since rebelled. She was on to the constrained code by which the very rich had lived and by which they had often become undone spiritually and emotionally while keeping up facades mirroring the homes in which they dwelled.
She was excoriating a period when doing the right and expected thing was often the absolutely wrong thing to do. To illustrate her insistent point, she employed protagonist Newland Archer. His very name began to tell the tale of an American eventually compromised as a result of living by stultifying manners. He’s an upper class New Yorker lacking supposedly superior European refinements yet bred to unquestioned arch (archer?) attitudes.
A century later than Wharton wrote, it might seem that her period piece is nothing more than that. But it’s more as Douglas McGrath has gracefully adapted it and Doug Hughes has carefully directed it for Princeton’s McCarter Theatre stage after a Hartford Stage stop.
Actually, there’s an elegance and sophistication to the co-production that give it a sense of period notably lacking in a world where the term “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is loosely tossed around.
Well-connected lawyer Newland (Andrew Veenstra with just the right self-aware callowness) is engaged to rich, vivacious May Welland (Helen Cespedes with just the right moneyed charm). May is of the 400-embedded Wellands, who, despite society’s snobbery, have taken in compromised relative Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess, looking beautiful and incipiently tragic), back from an unhappy marriage to an abusive count.
Dispatched to the Countess to discourage her from a divorce that would further alienate her from the Manhattan snobs (don’t live north of 40th Street and not as downtown as bohemian 23rd Street), Newland slowly comes to regard Countess Olenska as the broadening influence he knows he will never have in the sweet but happily complacent May.
Archer’s deeper attraction to the Countess is—well, the most applicable word is “consummated”—when she tells him she has just received sheet music for Stephen Foster’s just published “Beautiful Dreamer” and coaxes him (he’s reluctant at first) to sing it with her.
N.B.: Try as I might, I don’t find this exact scene in Wharton. (If you do, please alert me.) So I’m regarding it as a liberty adapter McGrath has taken to enhance dramatically the ultimately ill-fated romantic bonding. Perhaps McGrath was motivated by thinking he could find two accomplished and therefore persuasive singers. He’s done that with Veenstra and Boggess, vacationing from musicals like Phantom of the Opera, sequel Love Never Dies and School of Rock. Their silken singing is, of course, a metaphor for sex, and tempered fire it is.
McGrath, the book writer for Beautiful and co-writer with Woody Allen of Bullets Over Broadway, takes another, extremely effective liberty with Wharton’s writing. She composed in the third person. Playwright McGrath composes in the first person with a character identified as The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines) narrating. It’s a conceit held only briefly before the man, garbed in 1920s business wear, confesses he’s the older Newland Archer.
Recalling his past and the mistakes he made when young, this Newland is offering a lesson on how conforming to received conventions is quite ill-advised. As the perhaps 70-ish Newland, Gaines looks unrelievedly stricken, and it’s McGrath’s skill, as led by Wharton, that has the audience members assuming they know the cause of his despair only to learn its even deeper. The shock occurs at a denouement featuring Dallas Archer (Josh Salt), Newland’s son, and it packs a punch.
If there’s an overarching tone (pun sort of intended) to this take on The Age of Innocence—Wharton hardly regards May’s innocence as a strictly beneficial attribute—is its stateliness. McGrath appropriates Wharton’s prose in kind, if not doggedly verbatim, and so the play unfolds in measured tones that fit superficially the 1870s years during which gossip and hypocrisy abound. As a result, it’s possible that Hughes’ calculated pace could have some spectators drumming their fingers for a faster tempo.
The characters stride about on John Lee Beatty’s (unusual for him) impressionistic set with its five chandeliers and tall, decorative lampposts and in Linda Cho’s striking costumes—the women wearing Charles G. LaPointe’s intricate wigs. Sound designer Mark Bennett composed music that includes a waltz for three nimble couples, Newland and May among them. (Peter Pucci is the choreographer.)
Wharton may seem only to be chiding the effects of a bygone era, but she and McGrath do see it in larger terms. They know there are underlying human behaviors that never disappear. This Age of Innocence puts those on display joltingly and even thrillingly.
The Age of Innocence opened September 15, 2018, at McCarter Theatre and runs to October 7. Tickets and information: mccarter.org