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American Century Theater Biography

By • Jun 11th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Biography by S.N. Behrman
American Century Theater: (Info) (Web)
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through June 29th
2:40, with two intermissions
$35-$40/$32-$37 Seniors, students, Military
Reviewed June 8th, 2013

It’s not as if the 1932 comedy sensation Biography didn’t have some hot buttons just waiting to be pushed in 2014. You’ve got embezzlement, bribery, intimidation by threat of lawsuit, sexual hypocrisy, political chicanery and mental maladies ranging from narcissism and anal obsession to infatuation addiction and paranoid schizophrenia. The paranoid schizophrenic is perhaps the hottest button, he’s what could be called a “walking time bomb just waiting to go off.”

All these opportunities for dramatic energy are pretty much glossed over by director Steven Scott Mazzola’s current American Century Theater production of Biography. What could be a comedy drama rife with shocking revelations and fraught reactions comes across as a protracted exhibition of mildly interesting characters. The play’s author, S.N. Behrman (1893-1973) was not a shock therapist on a par with Henrik Ibsen. But, in its day, Biography was hugely popular because of Behrman’s particular knack for upsetting seemingly sedate situations. 

Behrman specialized in what used to be called “drawing room comedies” — the forebears of TV sitcoms. People would gather in a parlor and say funny things. The 19th Century literary and theatrical phenomenon Oscar Wilde was the absolute master of the genre (consider, for example, the perfections of The Importance of Being Earnest.) Behrman is much more wordy and much less witty that Wilde. But he knew how to engineer the mechanics of the drawing room genre: shuffle and deal and then reshuffle and redeal the funny maid, the young man of questionable breeding, the fascinating female lead, assorted secondary protagonists and funny older persons.

American Century Theater’s mandate is to rediscover major plays of the 20th Century. Biography was certainly major in its day — despite its 1932 Broadway première, it made lots of money — a burgeoning depression not withstanding.

The ACT revival of Biography is certainly of interest in terms of theater history. And its theme of freedom of the press vs. political expediency is undeniably timely.

The story’s particulars have to ring familiar bells for contemporary audiences. Readers of “People” and “Us” and supermarket tabloids know all about celebrity and scandal and sad but showy attempts to overcome adversity. In Biography, an editor sees that he could make a lot of money by publishing the life story of Marion Froude, a well-known female portrait artist. She consorts with (and sleeps with) an international array of the rich and famous. She has done portraits of dukes, presidents and dictators. The editor eventually overcomes Froude’s unwillingness to become a tell-all author. Once she gets started, however, Froude enjoys detailing her memories. 

The Froude character may have been patterned on Isadora Duncan, an early 20th Century American modern dance pioneer who had affairs with all sorts of foreign notables. Before mass women’s liberation, women in the arts were the main suppliers of successful exemplars of unfettered female self-realization and self-expression.

As a young woman in Tennessee, Marion had enjoyed a sexual/romantic relationship with a man she had grown up with. The man, Leander (AKA Bunny), went on to become a rich lawyer. Then he decided to become a US senator. Then he discovered that his ex-lover Marion was about to publish her memoirs. Leander tries to persuade Marion to abandon her literary project. Not only is his political future involved but also in peril is his imminent marriage to Slade Kennicott — daughter of the immensely rich and politically powerful Orrin Kennicott.

Complications multiply. The tangle is never sorted out neatly. But we are left with a detailed picture (or biography) of the free-loving and free-living Marion Froude.

In that role, Jennifer J. Hopkins is flighty and eccentric. She easily fits into the stereotype of the early 20th Century arty Bohemian woman. She flaps her hands a lot. She rarely pauses to acknowledge and exploit the dramatic incidents that mine her role. Her speedy, excited, breathy diction is sometimes unintelligible. When the moments are ripe for subtle bits of acting that would give emotional oomph to Marion’s supposedly deep love for both Leander and the ambitious editor, Hopkins portrayal is sketchy. Her character comes across as essentially superficial despite a few moments urgent sincerity. Grave threats and serious misfortunes hardly seem to faze her.

As the editor, Daniel Corey faces the show’s hardest acting chores. A 1930s audience would be familiar with a stereotypical leftist/anarchist/marxist true believer. Corey can’t fall back on that long gone popular conception. His ranting cantankerousness just seems… well… odd. He might give audiences an account of a full-blown and sensational paranoid schizophrenic, but that never happens. Playwright Behrman throws in a few unhappy details from the editor’s childhood to add a bit of depth to the character. But Corey’s brief memory monologue about murderous anti-union strife comes as a playwright’s slapdash effort to plug up a hole in his story’s plausibility.

The one performer who seems at home in his role, with no desperate grasping for effects, is Craig Miller as a Viennese musician — an old friend of Marion’s from her days of European adventuring. Miller’s account of an incident of embezzlement could use some vigorous grasping for effects, however — desperate or otherwise. Illegal misappropriation of an inheritance is not best served up as a bland comment. 

Cam Magee as Marion’s maid, Jon Townson as Leander, Frank Britton as a Hollywood heart throb, Joe Cronin as the manipulative millionaire Orrin Kennicott and Caitlyn Conley as Kennicott’s sassy daughter all make do with punchy one-dimensional representations. 

As entertainment, the ACT presentation of Biography is a little on the snoozy side. 

I’ll admit however that I did get a few laughs from the show. Some of the lines are snappy, as when Marion asks Leander, “Do you want to be a senator or is it just that you can’t help yourself?” And Joe Cronin, as Orrin Kennicott, offers a droll satire of the 19th Century dietary fanatics Charles Post and Harvey Kellogg. Like that pair of Battle Creek health prophets, Kennicott preaches that the cure for licentiousness is “roughage” (fiber). For irony, Kennicott uses this precept as an element in a seduction strategy. 

There’s a question that Biography raises but never answers straight out: Why is this play called Biography? It’s all about whether or not a woman will write her autobiography.

Eventually, as the hours slowly go by, we realize that playwright S.N. Behrman has written a biography of an allegedly fascinating woman who has had erotic affairs with all kinds of celebrities. The woman dithers over whether or not she will accept much-needed money to write her memoirs for publication. Whatever she decides — to write or not to write, that is the question — Behrman creates a detailed dramatic portrait. In other words, leave the autobiography or no autobiography to the ditsy and distraught protagonist. As for Behrman, he painstakingly proceeds with his fictional biography of the fictional Marion Froude. 

Photo Gallery

Jon Townson as Leander Nolan, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude Cam Magee as Minnie, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude
Jon Townson as Leander Nolan, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude
Cam Magee as Minnie, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude
Frank Britton as Warwick Wilson, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Cam Magee as Minnie Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Caitlyn Conley as Slade Kinnicott, Joe Cronin as Orrin Kinnicott, Daniel Corey as Richard Kurt, Jon Townson as Leander Nolan
Frank Britton as Warwick Wilson, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Cam Magee as Minnie
Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Caitlyn Conley as Slade Kinnicott, Joe Cronin as Orrin Kinnicott, Daniel Corey as Richard Kurt, Jon Townson as Leander Nolan
Joe Cronin as Orrin Kinnicott, Caitlyn Conley as Slade Kinnicott, Jon Townson as Leander Nolan Craig Miller as Melchior Feydak, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude
Joe Cronin as Orrin Kinnicott, Caitlyn Conley as Slade Kinnicott, Jon Townson as Leander Nolan
Craig Miller as Melchior Feydak, Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude
Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Joe Cronin as Orrin Kinnicott Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Jon Townson as Leander Nolan
Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Joe Cronin as Orrin Kinnicott
Jennifer J. Hopkins as Marion Froude, Jon Townson as Leander Nolan

Photos by Johannes Markus

Cast

  • Richard Kurt: Daniel Corey
  • Minnie: Cam Magee
  • Melchoir Feydak: Craig Miller
  • Marion Froude: Jennifer J. Hopkins
  • Leander “Bunny” Nolan: Jon Towson
  • Warwick Wilson: Frank Britton
  • Orrin Kinnicott: Joe Cronin
  • Slade Kinnicott: Caitlyn Conley

Production Staff

  • Director: Steven Scott Mazzola
  • Scenic Design: Robert Gato Echanique
  • Costume Design: Alison Samantha Johnson
  • Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
  • Sound Design: Ed Moser
  • Properties Design: Lindsey E. Moore
  • Stage Manager: Tre Wheeler
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Charles Lasky
  • Master Carpenter: Jonathan Hudspeth
  • Scenic Artist: Annalisa Dias-Mandoly
  • Set Construction: Ashley Crouch, Thomas Linn, Colin Manning
  • Additional Scenic Painting: Ashley Crouch, Lindsey E. Moore, Colin Manning, Ed Moser
  • Dialect Coach: Karin Rosnizeck
  • Master Electrician: Jonathan Weinberg
  • Sound Board Operator: Ashley Crouch
  • Wardrobe Assistant: Ashley Crouch
  • Photography: Johannes Markus
  • Publicist: Emily Morrison

Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9591.

lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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