The Grass is Greener by Hugh and Margaret Williams, Directed by Eric Peterson
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"There is no honor when thereís sex."
Tatum, Howe, Hurst, Skura and Perry in a rehearsal photo; photo: Robert Sugarman
On a glamorous set designed by Carl Sprague, Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, Vermont is presenting a 1950's British romantic comedy, The Grass is Greener, which concerns the somewhat egregious behavior of a Texas millionaire who invades the private quarters of an upperclass British couple whose house, not home, is open for tour groups. Once inside the couples living quarters he verbally makes love to the wife, woos her away from her husband for a week and attempts to destroy their marriage. He also fights a pistol duel with the Lord of the manor and flirts with this other gentlemanís part-time mistress, giving her the same mink coat she originally gave to the Lordís Lady. If thatís your idea of comedy, you will definitely have a ball at the Oldcastle Theatre, located in the Bennington Center for the Arts, in this play which runs through July 6.
The most charming element of this show is that wonderful set. Itís a place you will want to live. Clearly almost everyone in this show wants to live there. Victor and Hilary, their butler Sellars and their friend Hattie all seem to adore the space. Charles from the US is not quite as enamored. What he likes is the lady of the manor. Itís not hard to understand why he likes her. She is blonde, bouncy and very nice to be with, especially as portrayed by Melissa Hurst. In a role created by Celia Johnson and then by Rachel Gurney during the original London run of the play at the St. Martinsí Theater in 1959, and later by Deborah Kerr in the 1960 film, Hurst is all business, bustle and flirtatious mannerisms. She has an adorable smile and itís hard to take your eyes off her when she speaks or moves. As the center of attention, the place the script would have her possess, the is right on the money. Or the mark, for this couple need money. She raises and markets mushrooms and he puts his house on the tourist market several times a week.
Part of the charm that the Texan provides, it would seem, is the cash. Not that Greg Skura, the actor who plays Charles, needs cash to be attractive. He pulls of the American dash and splash sort of charm with great ease and ability. Even when he makes verbal faux-pas in his conversation with Hilary he has a certain definite appeal for her and for the audience. It is easy, in Skuraís hands, to see why the sophisticated ladies of the play find him so attractive, and yes, his oil-money millions is a part of that package. There is also a virility that seems to flow from him to whomever he is addressing.
It even affects Lord Victor Rhyall himself, played here by Oldcastle favorite Bill Tatum. Played in the movie by Cary Grant, this roleís soft-sell sophistication is hard to grapple from the script in which Victor is portrayed as grumpy, facetious and boringly traditional, a man whose position allows him a mistress now and then but no tolerance for other men who desire the same. Grant could pull off this sort of thing, but Tatum is just annoying most of the time in his double-standard machinations. What should be genuinely funny in the second act comes across as more pathetic than delightful. Itís a pity, because he has ample talent and ample opportunity to provide ample light-hearted sympathy. I think the script is against him and Iím not sure that anyone involved knows how to extract that humor from the situation.
As Hattie, the would-be mistress of almost any man with power, money or position, Yvonne Perry is almost the equal of the filmís Jean Simmons. She makes the most of her moments and her costumes, by Patti Brundage, are the best of the show. Perry has a voice like satin and a style that is pure period and absolutely right for the character. And she gets the mink and, frankly, deserves it.
The fifth wheel, or fly in the ointment, is the butler who wants to be a novelist and is willing to give back some of his salary because there isnít enough work to occupy his time. Clearly on the British stage this character would be a laugh-riot, but here he is merely hard to grasp, impossible to sympathize with in his completely disinterested manner. Played by Richard Howe in a glum, oh-so-miserable way, he is neither funny nor pleasant and his lengthy first act scenes feel interminable.
Peterson has put excellent comic business in the hands of his actors, but he is hampered by a script that, had it been written by an author with a sense of humor, would have been deliciously funny. Instead there is an awkward staginess about the proceedings that is firmly seated in the writing and not the production. If you have doubts about the lack of true humor in the piece, see the play, then watch the movie. Even with four perfect players (Robert Mitchum is the American) the piece is dogged by that peculiar lack of talent to create lightness and frivolity in a what should be a sexual romp but is only a period perception of a long-standing British stage tradition, the romantic drawing room comedy. Oh, for Wilde, Coward, Ayckborn, or even Spike Milligan.
The Grass is Greener plays at the Oldcastle Theatre Company stage at the Bennington Center for the Arts on Gypsy Lane in Bennington, Vermont through July 6. For tickets and/or information contact the box office at 802-447-0564.