Back to Life
Superb performances, nuanced staging revive 1920 fable.
By PHILIP BRANDES, Special to The Los Angeles Times
If we remember Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar at all, it’s likely in a footnote as the source for the “Carousel” story line. Yet in a finely nuanced revival of Molnar’s bittersweet 1920 romantic fable, “The Swan,” Pacific Resident Theatre makes a compelling case for this neglected work’s enduring importance.
Examining class barriers and aristocratic foibles with sophisticated wit and insight more reminiscent of Philip Barry than Rodgers and Hammerstein, “The Swan” constantly impresses in its refusal to settle for the obvious.
From the opening image of a butler hastily inspecting the maids’ fingernails, it’s apparent that for the bluebloods at the center of the play, appearances are everything. Desperate to regain her family’s displaced royal footing, matriarchal Beatrice (Marilyn Fox) is determined to marry her lovely but haughty daughter Alexandra (Shiva Rose) to the visiting crown prince (Robert Lee Jacobs). His pointed disinterest spurs the manipulative Beatrice into a shameless ploy to arouse the prince’s jealousy, using as bait a brilliant but socially inconsequential tutor (Alexander Enberg).
Disaster ensues when the young academic proves unexpectedly eloquent and forward in declaring his affections to a girl above his station, stirring sympathetic feelings in return. Having set up these conflicted loyalties to love and class, however, Molnar’s fairy tale takes some surprisingly realistic turns as veiled intentions, mistaken assumptions and inconvenient truths keep all the players off balance.
Performances are superb. Fox’s Beatrice is a continual source of comic delight–and more than a little frightening–as she cycles through every shade of maternal neurosis; Susan Dexter’s turn as her ditzy sister is a perfect complement. Rose, Enberg and Jacobs trace convincing arcs as their characters struggle with their romantic triangle. Sorting through the confusion falls to the voices of maturity–Beatrice’s brother (Orson Bean), a worldly priest, and the prince’s shrewd mother (Diane Hurley). Seeing elders respected as sources of wisdom rather than objects of ridicule is a refreshing throwback to more genteel sensibilities.
Molnar’s construction is not entirely free of artifice–the explanation extricating the prince from his initial standoffishness is particularly forced, for example. This play’s overall delicacy could easily turn to lead in less capable hands. But Howard Shangraw’s staging so thoroughly illuminates its many fine qualities, while minimizing its limitations, that we can only be grateful to him–and to the company–for rescuing this charming work from undeserved obscurity.
“The Swan,” Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
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