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Manhattan Theatre Club

Accent on Youth

by Samson Raphaelson

11 June 2009 (Friedman Theatre)

Accent on Youth, a play from 1934, has a moral in mind, and its moral is that people who really love what they do should never be trusted to love anything, or anyone, else. Specifically, of course, the play is concerned with theatre people, but I'm not so sure that there's anything especially unromantic about theatre people. Accent on Youth marks a distinction of sorts between the theatricality of theatre people — the constant posing and pretending, the almost involuntary seeking after effect — and the collaborative, essentially cooperative effort that makes it possible to put on a play. Having mounted a play, the playwright and the producers are quickly dreaming of the next one, and they will let nothing interfere with inspiration when it strikes

 even if that means failing to show up when the boat sails — the boat, in this case, being the Ile de France.

The foundation of this well-made comedy is the well-known itch of popular entertainers to do something "serious." The author of nineteen laff riots, Steven Gaye (David Hyde Pierce) has decided to write a tragedy. We don't know anything about the play overall, but we do know that an old man makes love to a young woman, which is thought by everyone to be positively experimental. Even the playwright isn't convinced that he can make it sound plausible. In fact, he's rather disenchanted. So he's a sitting duck when a temptress among his colleagues (Rosie Benton) invites him to travel to Finland with her. He accepts, and sets about chucking his New York life. This involves discharging Linda, his secretary (Mary Catherine Garrison), and — a surprise to him — provoking wild declarations of love from the young lady, a mousy sort who has been in love with him for three years. At first, Steven responds as a human being — sympathy (poor dear) giving way to conceit (how could she not) — but by the time the curtain comes down on the first act, he is responding as a playwright. Linda's break-my-heart tirade has shown him how to save his play!. Instead of the old man making love to the girl, the girl will make love to the old man! Still wearing her winter coat, Linda is obliged to take his white-hot dictation as he sketches out his next hit.

It seems churlish to complain that there are three more scenes, because it can't be said that the rest of the play drags or outstays its welcome. But nothing happens that hasn't already happened in Act I. Byron Jennings gets to do a show-stoppingly original (and extreme) impersonation of barely functioning drunk, and the two leading ladies show up in some fetching costumes (by Jane Greenwood), but the question presented by the remainder of Accent on Youth is whether Linda will find happiness with Steven or with Dickie Reynolds, the strapping and athletic jeune premier (David Furr). It isn't much of a question, though, because Linda, like Steven, is a theatre person, and not up for the serious work of sustaining genuine emotions over long periods of time. This makes her an ideal companion for Steven, albeit not necessarily a happy one. If what I've said has you thinking of Twentieth Century, that may be because I'm thinking of it, too.

Mr Hyde Pierce is the raison d'être of this revival. His gift for shifting gears instantly between the humane Steven and the professional Steven is so hypertrophic that it reminds me of that line in My Fair Lady about Arabic's "speed of summer lightning." What's more, Steven's humane side is manifestly less sincere; Steven isn't really interested in being a nice person. Far more appealing is the boyish verve of his reptilian, opportunistic side. Steven has a couple of truly witty lines, but for me they were swamped by the actor's extraordinarily brilliant delivery of them.

Accent on Youth, then, has something of the too-easy ease of shooting fish in a barrel. It's not that Steven Gay is too easy for David Hyde Pierce, but that Mr Hyde Pierce makes things too easy for the rest of the cast and crew — and for the playwright. These other personnel simply don't have anything like the challenge presented to Mr Hyde Pierce; most of them don't have enough to do (although, like Mr Jennings, Charles Kimbrough squeezes some very good theatre out of the role of Flogdell, the butler). Ms Benton is arresting as Genevieve Lang, but she's improbable as a physical match for the slight Mr Hyde Pierce: her being arguably taller brings out an unwanted maternal disciplinarian. As for Ms Garrison, I'm not a fan of the early-Thirties platinum blondes that she seems to have in mind, and I find high female voices very hard to take. Also, Linda is mousy. The biggest disappointment was the brevity of Lisa Banes's part. Playing a middle-aged comédienne, Miss Darling, Ms Banes gets to announce that she's not in the last act — and it's all too true! (I would have adapted the play to insert her, equally intoxicated, into Mr Jennings's tour de force.) David Furr is excellent as Dickie: the nice guy who isn't so nice. I had the weirdest feeling that he was actually Gene Raymond.

I will say that I've never seen a more impressive set. John Lee Beatty has outdone himself with the creation of a Georgian-deco sitting-room/antechamber for Steven. The design of the walls (with niches and garlands and whatnot) is so strong that the dispersal of furniture about the set seems very formal, but in fact there are many odd corners from which to play. Brian MacDevitt's lighting keeps the scene as fresh as the action — perhaps rather fresher, all things considered.

No one can regret seeing this production of Accent on Youth, but one might hope that there are playwrights out there who are trying to applying the sophisticated, rapid-fire articulateness of Thirties comedy to more contemporary inquiries into love and fame.

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