“The Age of Innocence”: a world of artifice and cowardice

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"The Age of Innocence" at McCarter Theatre in Princeton
The Age of Innocence while often solid, is more often stolid

Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, which made her the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, chronicled New York society in the 1870’s with its rules and rewards and punishments. Playwright Douglas McGrath has faithfully adapted the novel for the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, perhaps a bit too faithfully. The society of which Wharton wrote was emotionally cold, its rules constricting. This play is equally cold and constricting. It seems to defeat the efforts of the actors and director Doug Hughes to bring it to satisfying life.

The best metaphor for this is Tony Award-winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty’s beautiful set. It is all airy wrought iron and clerestory windows, with glittering chandeliers hanging overhead. There are a dozen or so gilded chairs used to turn the space into a dining room, the opera, a private carriage, or whatever else is needed. There is a large scrim in the back used to indicate place and season. But this beautiful room is essentially empty within.

The three main characters comprise a love triangle

So too are the characters populating this drama. They talk and move and act according to the proprieties of the era. Yet if any should harbor ideas of breaking out of the snug, stifling box of their regulated lives, they are quickly brought to heel by the suffocating conformity of class expectations. The three main characters comprise a love triangle in which love, passion, and propriety exert equal force. Their story is narrated by an old gentleman (Boyd Gaines) who reveals himself to be one Newland Archer. Up and coming lawyer Newland (Andrew Veenstra) is engaged to society belle May Welland (Helen Cespedes). May’s beloved cousin Ellen, Countess Olenska (Sierra Bogess) has arrived from Europe seeking to escape her loveless, abusive marriage, which creates scandal for the family. Newland, trying to help Ellen regain the place in society she once had, develops a desire for her yet still goes through with his marriage to May. Ellen resists but gradually becomes attracted to Newland. When May reveals her pregnancy, Ellen leaves for Europe, intending never to return.

The one actor not overcome by the script is Darrie Lawrence as the formidable society matron, Mrs. Manson Mingott, grandmother of May and Ellen, who presides over this convoluted tale. With her unshakeable position as matriarch of an old New York society family and her control of the family fortune, Mrs. Mingott is free to live life on her own terms and does so with a wisdom hard-earned from experience. Ms. Lawrence’s performance is a tour de force, making the most of her appearances on stage, holding and capturing the audience’s attention.

I have mentioned before the beautiful yet empty set of John Lee Beatty. Complimenting his design are the lighting effects created by Ben Stanton. An original score by sound designer Mark Bennett, played on stage by pianist Yan Li, adds additional atmosphere to the show. The costumes by Linda Cho capture the restrictive feel of New York society, save for the spectacular pink house coat of Mrs. Mingott — more a royal cloak than a coat. The outfits for Countess Oleska reflect by contrast a style and sophistication that society of the time would call “European” with a bit of a sneer.

The season opener for the McCarter Theatre should have more of a bite

The opening night audience rose to its feet at the conclusion of the play. However, I had hoped this season opener for the McCarter Theatre would have more of a bite than it did. The production, while often solid, is more often stolid. I felt even an average adaptation on TV’s Masterpiece Theatre would be better than this stage adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Unless 1870’s New York is your passion, or you are a fan of Edith Wharton’s novels, I cannot encourage you to see this production.

The Age of Innocence is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Berlind Theatre on the campus of Princeton University through October 7, 2018. For tickets and information, visit mccarter.org.