Category: Archive

Novelist’s stage effort discovers melodrama

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

VERONIQUE, by John O’Hara. Directed by Dan Wackerman. Starring Jim Iorio and Jennifer Erin Roberts. Peccadillo Theater Company, Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank St., NYC. Through Aug. 4.

Literary history is loaded with tales of celebrated poets, novelists and essayists whose greatest desire was to write for the theater.

Among them was the novelist and short story titan John O’Hara, author author of 14 novels and 400 published stories. The year 1961 saw the appearance of a volume containing five plays by the novelist, none of which ever earned much stage life beyond a couple of workshop productions and a few university theater productions.

But now, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, one of that quintet of O’Hara stage works, “Veronique,” is being given a deft, reasonably compelling production, courtesy of the enterprising, intelligently managed Peccadillo Theater company in their home on Bank Street in the West Village.

Last year, Peccadillo, under the guiding hands of its artistic director, Dan Wackerman, and general manager, Kevin Kennedy, turned to another Irish-American giant of O’Hara’s time, Eugene O’Neill, and gave the playwright’s much-neglected interracial romance, “All God’s Children Got Wings,” a truly memorable production.

“Veronique,” rendered with equal earnestness in just about every respect, turns out to be what one might have expected from O’Hara, a strong-willed author who disliked the idea of rewriting and editing almost as much as he loathed being criticized.

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The play crackles with witty, expert, authentic-seeming dialogue, assigned to an octet of mainly literary and theatrical aspirants as they come and go with ease in and out of what O’Hara calls “a basement apartment on West Third Street, Greenwich Village,” mainly in the spring of 1928.

The play’s limitations are fairly clearly those of almost any novelist who turns to the theater: a certain lack of discipline where construction is concerned, and a hesitation, almost an outright refusal, to state its purpose and adhere to its development.

Townsend Ringwald (Jim Iorio) is a struggling playwright, with one brief success a few years back, a summery comedy done now and again because “it only requires five actors and a lot of porch furniture.” To meet his bills, or try to, he writes brief, unsigned play reviews for $6 a pop.

Veronique McCullough (Jennifer Erin Roberts) is an upstairs neighbor, a former showgirl now turned to modeling, who describes herself as “French-Canadian, Scotch-Irish and Roman Catholic.” She’s been kept by men and, briefly, by a woman, neither situation much to her liking, and now she’s loosely in something resembling love with Townsend.

The TmigrT from Canada isn’t in much better shape, financially, than the hard-pressed, earnest would-be dramatist. At the start of Act One, both have had their telephone service disconnected. Even Townsend’s last bottle of bathtub gin has only a couple of shots left in it.

After a secure opening foray into what seems to be secure O’Hara territory, namely closely observed social comedy, the author staggers into what might be thought of as the low-rent district.

Introducing a pair of corrupt, shallow and obnoxious gay men — pianist Wilmer Hightower (Richard Leighton) and Earl Fisher (Benjamin Howes), the musician’s youngish boyfriend, neither of them possessing even a scintilla of redeeming virtue character or wit — O’Hara effectively scuttles whatever interest the play’s early scenes, deftly shaped by Roberts’s Veronique and Iorio’s Townsend, may have created.

Even worse, delivering a fatal wound to his own play, the novelist, a former newspaper reporter in Pottsville, Pa., veers from what had seemed to promise intelligently observed, wittily delivered satire and careens into abject melodrama of the crassest variety.

“Veronique,” performed at the Bank Street Theatre with a single intermission, was written by O’Hara as a three-act play. The first segment is set in Townsend’s cellar apartment, the second in the titular heroine’s rooms a couple of floors above, in the same Village brownstone, while the third, after an awkward and unconvincing jump of almost a decade, takes place in a “luxurious apartment on the Upper East Side,” the residence of the now-successful playwright and his former neighbor from Montreal, who in the interim, have become husband and wife.

There has been a killing, a subsequent imprisonment, and, in O’Hara’s massively incredible final scene, a shaky gesture in the direction of absolution.

O’Hara’s play, ultimately dies the death of shabby melodrama, and an awkwardly crafted one, to boot. Director Wackerman has made an admirable stab at containing the undisciplined elements of the novelist’s misshapen jazz-age urban epic, and his actors, for the most part, have done their best, against all odds.

Peccadillo’s well-intended staging of O’Hara’s “Veronique” has, among other things, the effect of indicating fairly clearly why the Pennsylvania author never succeeded on the New York stage. A visit to Bank Street, however, will offer audiences a chance to see two fresh actors, the lithe Roberts, and the sturdy Iorio, at work. If only O’Hara had allowed their characters to remain at the center of the action, instead of sidelining them.

— Joseph Hurley

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