Category: Archive

A New Yorker in England

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Manners, a playwright who also operated a series of theatrical touring companies, wrote Peg O My Heart in 1912 as a vehicle for the 28-year-old Taylor, the popular actress to whom he was married.
Opening at New Yorks Cort Theater on Dec. 20, 1912, the plays run extended to more than 600 performances, followed by a lengthy road tour, and then by a successful revival in 1921, with Taylor reprising the role she had created nearly a decade earlier.
In a way, the play Manners had written for his wife entrapped her, much in the way that The Count of Monte Cristo had, a few years previously, made a virtual prisoner of James ONeill, one of the most popular actors of his era, and the father of playwright Eugene ONeill, who recapitulated the tragic effect his fathers professional incarceration had on his family in Long Days Journey Into Night, currently enjoying a sterling New York revival.
After producing a string of audience-taxing works, Tom Murphys Bailegangaire, Enda Walshs Bedbound and even Michael Wests less difficult Foley, the Irish Rep is tossing its audience a decidedly undemanding summer softball with artistic director Charlotte Moores slightly slapdash musicalization of the corny old warhorse Manners concocted for his wife 91 years ago.
A couple of seasons ago, Moore performed similar surgery on an equally popular old chestnut from a slightly earlier period, namely the Dublin-born Dion Boucicaults Streets of New York, and scored such a success with it that the show will be revived for a brief run at the Westport Country Playhouse this summer.
With Peg O My Heart, the intrepid Moore has been less fortunate, also less energetic. This time, in writing a handful of mediocre songs, arranged by Eddie Guttman, the conductor of the productions three-member musical aggregation, shes settled for facile, undemanding rhymes of the happy and sappy variety, not to mention linking wander with ponder, and so on.
If that werent sufficiently egregious, theres yet another joke about the English culinary favorite known as Spotted Dick, a textual holdover from the organizations The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way of a few seasons back.
Mannerss music-free work was a sentimental three-act comedy in which Margaret OConnoll, nicknamed Peg, and referred to as Peg OMy Heart by her feckless, unseen Irish father, lands in the country home of her late English mothers stuffy dowager sister.
Moore, who directed the new version in addition to writing the productions relatively few songs, has moved the tale ahead by some seven years, setting the story in early summer 1919 in the living room of an old Tudor house near Scarborough, England.
The heroines mothers clan are a snobby crew, accustomed to the wealth in which they live until a bank failure in the plays first scene reduces them to a form of genteel poverty, to which the innocent but impulsive newcomer unwittingly holds the key.
Peg has been living in poverty in New York, a situation that is considerably improved upon when her mothers brother, who detested the bulk of his tribe but adored his half-Irish niece, dies suddenly, making the girl his heir.
The terms of the will, however, require that she return to England to acquire the sort of proper culture and mode of behavior that she, as a member of the aristocracy, is expected to display.
The girl finds herself a kind of paying guest in the home of her upper-crust aunt, a dragon determined to train her according to the old traditions.
Mrs. Chichesters unpromising household includes a stiff-necked daughter, Ethel, a hopeless son, Alaric, a butler named Jarvis and a couple of peripheral characters, the fortune-hunting cad, Christian Brent, and, fortunately for Peg, a likely romantic prospect shes introduced to simply as Jerry, but who turns out to be the well-bred and well-heeled Sir Gerald.
The cast Moore has assembled for Peg OMy Heart centers, of course, on Kathleen Early, who, as the youthful arrival, at first assumed to be a candidate for a servants position, is fresh-faced, pretty and musically adequate. She lacks, however, the quirky star power that we can only assume Laurette Taylor must have brought to the role.
J. Kennedy, a young actor with a good reputation in London and Dublin, is making his American stage debut as a facile and charming Jerry in Moores show, in which the sole Irish Rep vet is James A. Stephens, performing yeomans service as Jarvis.
Jonathan Hadleys Brent is suitably oily, while Rita Harvey, Jody Madaras and Melissa Hart are properly off-putting as, respectively, Ethel, Alaric and Mrs. Chichester.
James Morgans set design is flawless, including even a remarkably ugly bust of Queen Victoria. David Tosers costumes seem dead right for the period, while the tiny orchestra, with Marty Fett on cello, Brenda Vincent on violin, and Guttman conducting and playing piano, served the thinnish score admirably.
Peg OMy Heart comes equipped with a happy ending and so, fortunately, did the life of the great Laurette Taylor. After years lost to alcoholism, she was resuscitated by the actor and director Eddie Dowling and cast in one of the 20th centurys greatest theatrical parts.
In 1945, at age 61, Laurette Taylor created the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williamss The Glass Menagerie. When the actress died, on Dec. 7, 1946, she was still playing Amanda in the imperishable, Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

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