Biography – The American Century Theater

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The American Century Theater’s production of S.N. Behrman’s “Biography” tells the tale of Marion Froude, a successful artist from the 1920s and 30s who is known as much for her paintings of famous people as she is for those she has bedded.  She is the woman that every guy falls for the moment they meet her.  The comedy is based around her childhood boyfriend Leander “Bunny” Nolan who unexpectedly visits her on the eve of his wedding as he is also preparing to run for the United States Senate.  Enter a magazine publisher, Richard “Dickie” Kurt who wants Marion to write a series for his magazine re-telling her life and her loves.  Of course, such a story could really hurt Bunny’s chances at the Senate spot if he is associated with the Kardashian of the day and he tries to get the magazine article squashed.  And at the same time Bunny and Dickie are vying for Marion’s affections.  That of course is what the story is intended to be, but to pull it off Marion has to exude that je ne sais quoi that shows why the men are so drawn to her and the attraction of the men to Marion must be apparent.  Unfortunately, this production falls short every step of the way.  

The show opens with Dickie waiting in Marion’s home for an appointment and she is a half hour late.  He is understandably agitated and becomes even more agitated when she arrives and asks for him to come back in 30 minutes so she can visit with an old friend from Europe that is visiting.  Dickie storms off in a tiff before returning to pitch his idea for the series of magazine articles.  However, there was no subtlety to the performance of the character.  He seemed angry with and had an air of contempt for Marion and Bunny the whole time.  There is no chemistry between him and Marion to make you sense that the two characters have any sort of attraction to each other until you are smacked across the face with it at the end of the second act of this three act play.  And for the performance I saw, at that pivotal moment the two actors were speaking so softly you could not even hear them from the audience and I was no more than 20 feet away.  Additionally, there is no sense that Dickie’s contempt towards Bunny was anything more than him trying to stop the publishing of the article, as opposed to also being because they are both in competition for Marion’s affections.  I should probably back track and really focus on the character of Marion.  A character that is supposed to have that certain something about her.  A certain something that even the audience feels that makes everyone get why the men in the show are attracted to her.  It didn’t exist in this performance.  The 1930s dialogue of calling everyone “darling” and giving people nicknames felt forced and dated.  The performance came across as self-centered and just wanting everyone to like her.  And while that may be what the character actually was, it has to be portrayed in a manner that despite that kind of behavior you like her.  You get why these men have fallen for her and can’t get over her.  And I never got that sense.  It just came across as a shallow individual who was unaware of how her actions really effected those around her.  As for Bunny, the performance missed what I feel is probably the true subtlety of the character, a man that is to be married and is still in love with this woman from his past.  A man that is torn by his feelings for Marion and his fiancée and also by this autobiography being written by Marion that may undercut his ambition for the Senate.  The performance was so hot and cold, as if a switch was turned from his wanting this book to be squashed to his fondness for Marion.   It was never really clear whether Bunny was still in love with Marion until much later in the play and by that point the subtlety of that character was completely lost. 

I wish the problems with the production just stopped there.  Bunny’s future father-in-law Orin was a newspaper magnet from his home State of Tennessee that was going to use his power and influence to stop the magazine articles from being published in order to help Bunny’s Senate campaign.  He was a powerful man who could not be won over and always got his way.  The performance of this seemingly powerful and menacing man is almost buffoonish.  While awaiting the arrival of Marion, this menacing, powerful character voice reaches almost comical octaves when expressing his exacerbation at the situation of the article being published and his daughter’s unexpectedly arriving at Marion’s apartment.  Or after he has finally met Marion he actually bites the knuckles on his fist, like Jack Tripper would do in an episode of “Three’s Company” when a beautiful woman walked in the room.  The brightest spot of the whole show was Caitlyn Conley who played Slade, Bunny’s fiancée.  It was an extremely small role, but in that little stage time during act three, she exuded that je ne sais quoi that Marion was supposed to possess.  Seeing this bundle of energy and chutzpah I could better understand if she had been the character that Dickie and Bunny were so attracted.    

The use of sound effects to represent a door shutting, a doorbell and a telephone were comical.  You couldn’t decipher the difference between the door bell and telephone and the sound of a door shutting was almost funny if it hadn’t been so bad.  I was timing when this creaking audio clip of a door shutting would play.  The stage basically consisted of the audience sitting on two sides, but the use of the space was perplexing.  They placed a small red table and stools on one side of the stage and the actors often sat at the table with their backs to half the audience despite being a foot or two away from them.  At the same time, the entirety of the middle section of the stage was just an open floor with no props or set pieces.  Lastly, I’m not sure if the script dictates when the show takes place, but the incessant taking on and off of coats and hats by characters became distracting.  Especially when characters were about to leave the loft apartment and put on their hat and coats, but never quite got out the door and had to take them back off. 

In the playbill, the theater’s Artistic Director inexplicably goes about almost attacking other shows from the same era of the 1930s as being less worthy of the fame they received and how this was the true underappreciated gem of that era.  It was a bit off-putting to see an Artistic Director take such a tact as those sections are generally used to espouse the virtues of the show the theater is putting on and not to attack other works.  It comes off particularly nasty considering the production they put on certainly didn’t change my mind about why this has become a rarely performed piece.

 

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