Thursday, April 30, 2009

Accent on Youth


By Samson Raphaelson. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. (CLOSED)

Critics aren't exactly popping their corks over Manhattan Theatre Club's new revival of Samson Raphaelson's 1934 romantic comedy, in which David Hyde Pierce lightly limns a playwright's midlife crisis. Most critics appreciate Pierce's comic timing and single out a few other supporting performances for praise (Charles Kimbrough and Byron Jennings get some love), but are otherwise content to damn the enterprise with faint praise. At either end of the spectrum, a few are a tad more charmed and a few are much more severe, in particular the Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli, who may be the first theater critic at a major New York daily to use "emo" as an adjective.

Theater News Online A
(Jessica Branch) This wry comedy by Samson Raphanelson, better known for The Jazz Singer, still retains more vigor and charm than many more modern shows-as well as a touch of wisdom...The elaborately plotted, fast-moving play has more than its share of clever lines and witty observations, and director Daniel Sullivan makes the action run smoothly and logically despite the odd central caesura. But what ultimately makes the comedy stick with you as well as sparkle is that, while it plays with cliches of young obsessions and old love (the name of Steven's play within the play), it never reduces its characters to the stereotypes inherited from Restoration comedy.

New York A-
(Stephanie Zacharek) David Hyde Pierce has an air of nebbishy elegance that’s perfect for Samson Raphaelson’s 1934 Accent on Youth...and he brings buoyancy to Raphaelson’s Champagne-pop dialogue. The glamour quotient (not to mention the amount of lovely, lovely smoking) is high...If this production is missing one tiny thing, it’s the equivalent of the Lubitsch touch: It moves with crisp efficiency when just a little more zip and glide would be perfect. But director Daniel Sullivan and his cast come close enough, reminding us what a revival should be: awakening a sleeping beauty with the right kiss. Or by lighting her cigarette.

Bergen Record B+
(Robert Feldberg) They haven’t written debonair romantic comedies like Samson Raphaelson’s bonbon in a very long time. The play is imperfect — the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense, and the plot takes a dubious turn — but it’s amusing and charming, and effortlessly pushes our nostalgia buttons...David Hyde Pierce — witty, stylish and likeable, as always — portrays Steven Gaye, a middle-aged, extremely successful writer of Broadway comedies...Under the smart direction of Daniel Sullivan, the actors perform their roles with complete conviction, but also with a knowing little twinkle.

Bloomberg News B+
(Jeremy Gerard) It’s the kind of cream puff -- lighthearted, wistful, with just enough wit to make the viewer feel smart but no more -- that we associate with Noel Coward or, among Americans, Philip Barry and precious few others. Yet director Daniel Sullivan and a venerable ensemble led by David Hyde Pierce blow the dust off this minor gem, providing two hours of diversion from whatever you may need diverting from...Sullivan is one of the few directors around confident enough to treat such material without the standard post-modern dash of irony -- no troops marching off to war in the background or interpolations of Ponzi schemes and the like. Pierce may be a bit too youthful looking for the role, but what he lacks in facial creases he makes up for in perfect timing and suavity...There are more performances to treasure, as well. Notably Byron Jennings as a veteran actor who gives a master class in playing a drunk scene, the great Charles Kimbrough as an all-knowing butler, and Lisa Banes as an actress of a certain age and former flame of the playwright. The real find, however, is Mary Catherine Garrison. As the love-struck secretary, she makes naivete attractive.

New Yorker B+
An urbane, well-written meditation from a literate time gone by, about a successful writer who is losing the battle between his work and his women. The work goes swimmingly; the relationships with women don’t. As the morose writer, David Hyde Pierce does his droll thing, ably supported by Charles Kimbrough as his plucky butler. The casting of the women is more problematic; they make the struggle between life and art a rather easier choice than it should be. Daniel Sullivan directed this pleasant revival, which could have used more heat under it. B+
(Michael Criscuolo) A charming time capsule-like diversion that showcases the dry, comic skills of its cast in a flattering light...Beneath Accent on Youth's 1930s glamour and sophistication, is a soft-spoken melancholy that grounds the play and gives it more substance...But there are plenty of pleasant, harmless laughs to be had, as well...Daniel Sullivan directs with a mild, no-nonsense urgency that gives the actors room to breathe...A confection that goes down smooth and easy and leaves no guilt in its wake.

Associated Press B
(Michael Kuchwara) An amiable, minor-league diversion. For one thing, the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, has been elegantly put together: from designer John Lee Beatty's spiffy, wood-paneled Manhattan apartment to Jane Greenwood's stylish period costumes, particularly for the ladies. For another, its cast is headed by David Hyde Pierce, an actor who positively brims with likability...It's a flimsy tale, but Raphaelson has spun it out with the addition of several choice supporting characters, and Sullivan has cast them all savvily. Chief among them is Byron Jennings, one of theater's most reliable workhorses.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) While it's hard to imagine anyone being deeply in thrall to Samson Raphelson's 1934 cocktail party, at least Sullivan's deeply assured, swankily designed production passes the time pleasantly. And he has assembled a mostly first-rate cast to help thing along. Chief among them is David Hyde Pierce...Pierce is ideally cast for this kind of understated comedy, his elegant manner and fine way with a deadpan line harvesting the maximum value out of Raphelson's dialogue...And as long as this mild, Manhattanized update of Cyrano De Bergerac is focusing on the self-serving show folk on the sidelines, it provides some pretty solid amusement...Still, the Steven-Linda romance is an awfully mechanical affair. Raphelson basically skips over the part where they get together, so we never see what might make them right for each other...Still, anyone with a fondness for this kind of period comedy will probably find Accent on Youth to be irresistible -- even if it comes in a distant second to the currently running Blithe Spirit. It's no small help that John Lee Beatty has come up with one of his most gorgeous recent designs -- a Deco sitting room with odd, yet appealing, Federal touches.

Variety B-
(David Rooney) Daniel Sullivan's spiffy production and David Hyde Pierce's effortless timing make the antiquated comedy tick by painlessly enough, but there's not much substance beneath its mild charms...Sullivan's breezy staging of the first act, with its amusing dialogue and affectionate observation of quintessential theater types, makes you wonder why this contorted May-December romance doesn't turn up more often on the regional theater docket. But the strained plotting and longueurs of the second act, in which art imitates life and vice versa, make that absence clearer. Ditto the play's half-hearted bid to uncover a melancholy note in the trials of mid-life love.

Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) The instant the curtain (yes, a real curtain) rises on the drawing room of superstar playwright (no, I’m serious) Steven Gaye (that’s his name), and begins its incessant meta-tweaking of theatre folk, personalities, and scripts as if none of it had ever been done before, you know you’ve been catapulted into a different era...This is good for the production, which Daniel Sullivan has directed with no shortage of spit and polish, which John Lee Beatty (sets) and Jane Greenwood (costumes) have designed with luscious period detail, and which the cast - led by the fine pair of David Hyde Pierce and Mary Catherine Garrison - acts with elegant, dust-busting abandon. But it does the 1934 play no favors, because it just reminds you of the many more involved, interesting, and inventive ways in which this device has been used over the course of the last seven and a half decades...A pleasant, if empty-headed, two hours.

Theatermania C+
(David Finkle) Little more than mild entertainment for ticket buyers content with a passing-the-time trifle...Pierce may have made a habit of pushing the fey button when playing Niles Crane on Frasier, but here he puts the accent firmly on his romantic leading-man chops...Under Daniel Sullivan's slick direction, just about every one of the players has polished his or her role with whatever actors use as a Lemon Pledge equivalent...The exception to this perfection is Garrison, whose Linda Brown is absolutely right for the first act as Gaye's infatuated factotum. However, in act two, when Linda -- now having starred in that December-May play Gaye finished -- enters looking "extremely chic and expensive from head to toe," Garrison doesn't evoke the required theatrical savoir faire.

Village Voice C+
(Michael Feingold) No journey's easier than the amiable, wafer-thin, mildly witty one that Samson Raphaelson's 1934 comedy Accent on Youth shepherds us through. Raphaelson, who wrote some of Ernst Lubitsch's best screenplays, knows just how to spice up a standard love triangle with a dash of Pirandellian self-awareness. David Hyde Pierce and Mary Catherine Garrison, in director Daniel Sullivan's surprisingly bland production, give at least two sides of the triangle the needed sparkle, which makes for pleasantness, but not much more.

The New York Times C
(Charles Isherwood) Age has not exactly withered “Accent on Youth,” a 1934 comedy by Samson Raphaelson about the storms besetting a May-December romance in the theater world. But it has not done this personable but minor play any great favors either...Still, the Manhattan Theater Club revival...offers cozy comforts understandably prized by a significant subset of Broadway theatergoers. Namely those for whom a couple of hours of light laughs in the presence of a likable star and some ogle-worthy period scenery will suffice for an afternoon of diversion...Mr. Hyde Pierce hits his comic marks with the precision we’ve come to expect from his priceless turn on the long-running, exceptionally literate sitcom “Frasier"...The female roles are less stylishly played.

Newsday C
(Linda Winer) As Broadway's heavyweight season stampedes madly to today's official close, it would be lovely to be able to adore the breezy arrival of an unpretentious 1934 fluffball called "Accent on Youth"...Alas, it is hard to work up serious affection for the revival...The well-dressed production is more than dutiful, but less than scintillating. It's merely pleasant in the leisurely, mild-mannered style of elevated summer stock...Pierce - not particularly romantic or aged - delivers the knowing inside-theater observations with his usual pointed flair. But when Steven bellows, "To hell with the audience!," Pierce drops all pretense of the style and sticks his butt out at us. I'm going to try not to remember him like that.

American Theatre Web C
(Andy Propst) In Daniel Sullivan's graceful, but unremarkable revival that opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the show's discrete pleasures are certainly in evidence, particularly given leading man David Hyde Pierce's elegant performance, but as this show business romantic comedy spins its droll, but not terribly merry way, one can't help but wonder why the company selected this play for revival in the first place...It's comedy meant to inspire smiles, and perhaps the occasional laugh, but it's hardly uproarious stuff, and given the understated performances in the production, occasional bemusement is what theatergoers can expect from "Accent."

The Hollywood Reporter C-
(Frank Scheck) Feels like a bottle of champagne that's long lost its fizz. Not that there's anything terribly wrong with this production directed by Daniel Sullivan for the Manhattan Theatre Club. It certainly looks smashing, thanks to John Lee Beatty's gorgeous art-deco living room set, Jane Greenwood's elegant period costumes and Brian MacDevitt's caressing lighting design. And its star, David Hyde Pierce, uses his pitch-perfect comic timing, honed for so many seasons on "Frasier," to fine effect...But his efforts are not enough to prop up this decently crafted but uninspired 1934 comedy.

Entertainment Weekly C-
(Jeff Labrecque) Looks every bit its age. Tony-winning director Daniel Sullivan...opts for the original's 1930s sensibility, challenging a contemporary audience with feeble attempts at provocation and an antiquated representation of love...Minus the taboo that once accompanied a May-September romance, the characters' whiplash swoons seem irritatingly arbitrary, and the play's humor becomes more corny than clever. A less literal adaptation may have fared better, but as is, Accent on Youth is the rare romantic frolic that is all head and no heart.

Time Out NY D
(Adam Feldman) Feels distressingly aged and extraneous; you forget it even as you watch it. What is happening at MTC? The company’s website bills it as “one of the only institutions in the U.S. solely dedicated to producing new plays and musicals.” But its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre began the season with the new-in-name-only To Be or Not to Be, adapted from the 1942 film; then came a revival of 1990’s The American Plan; and now this. When did the MTC’s mission become a nostalgia trip? Are its captains asleep on the job? With productions like this one, no one could blame them.

AM New York D
(Matt Windman) The posh Manhattan apartment set design and Depression-era costumes are pretty. The cast is pretty charming. Some witty dialogue occasionally pops up. But it’s hard to not feel underwhelmed and bored by the Manhattan Theater Club’s well-meant but unnecessary and uninspired revival of what feels like a third-rate Noel Coward play...Pierce gives a sensitive and quirky performance, but it is nothing that we haven’t seen before. He appeared most comfortable not with leading lady Mary Catherine Garrison, who is pretty much at sea with her role, but Charles Kimbrough as the fun-loving butler.

Daily News D-
(Joe Dzeimianowicz) Flaccid...Whips up so little laughter it should carry a "lite" label. It is a surprising letdown, considering Raphaelson's credits - "The Jazz Singer," which became the first talkie, plus screenplays for the "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Suspicion," films that are timeless. "Youth," meanwhile, shows every one of its years, and neither Botox nor director Daniel Sullivan's game cast can erase them. Pierce, a "Frasier" favorite who won a Tony playing a singing gumshoe in "Curtains," pulls out his signature droll charm.

Backstage F+
(Erik Haagensen) It creaks, groans, and lumbers its way across the stage of the former Biltmore Theatre despite the best efforts of a talented company. Manhattan Theatre Club's production proves the danger of indiscriminate archeology and engenders incredulity at the resources lavished upon it. What's next, a revival of Glad Tidings?...Pierce summons every ounce of charm he possesses and lands his share of faded bons mots, but there's little he can do to make this antique stereotype interesting. Mary Catherine Garrison is more comfortable as the quirky secretary than she is as the Broadway star, never making the character's glamorous transformation wholly believable.

New York Post F
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Rarely have material, director and cast been as mismatched as they are in the leaden Manhattan Theatre Club production that opened last night...Unfortunately, Sullivan seems to have instructed his actors to act all emo and serious, ruining Raphaelson's effect. Adopting a slow, ponderous tone, the two leads leech all the wit out of the text...Hyde Pierce is so dour throughout that his simultaneous lifelessness is almost a relief -- it takes out some of the sting -- while Garrison, an appealing supporting performer in "Top Girls" and "Assassins," can't convincingly handle either her first-act mousy secretary or her second-act stage actress...The bummer of a set doesn't help...What irks me most is that, in the right hands, a Raphaelson script can still hit plenty of grace notes.

Theater News Online A 13; NY mag A- 12; Bergen Record B+ 11; Bloomberg B+ 11; B+ 11; NYer B+ 11; Associated Press B 10; L&SA B 10; Variety B- 9; Talkin' Broadway C+ 8; Theatermania C+ 8; VV C+ 8; The New York Times C 7; Newsday C 7; American Theatre Web C 7; The Hollywood Reporter C- 6; Entertainment Weekly C- 6; TONY D 4; AM New York D 4; Daily News D- 3; Backstage F+ 2; New York Post F 1; 169/22=7.68 (C+)

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