It's hard to argue with the proposition that everyone needs to get away from the daily routine now and then, and head off to a sun-drenched locale where glimmering waters and fragrant blossoms abound. Since there is unanimous agreement on this plan, it seems a rather slender thread from which to hang an entire play. Kind of like mounting a theatrical performance in tribute to clean laundry or how good it is to be nice.
In any case, this is the impetus behind Enchanted April, now spraying cloying clouds of lilac air freshener onto patrons of the Cleveland Play House. Adapted by Matthew Barber from a 1922 novel, this version makes a couple half-hearted feints at early feminist impulses and the sexual dynamics between men and women. But Barber forces his stereotyped characters through so many predictable romantic-comedy hoops -- here's the dour lady with an Awful Secret (gasp!), here's the stuffy husband with his pants off (titter!) -- that the entire effort, viewed from start to finish, will lower your IQ by three points.
Lotty Wilton is a spirited but domesticated British housewife who dutifully ties the shoelaces and cravat of her husband, Mellersh, while being tied herself to soul-crushing monotony. One day, in the ladies' social club, she stumbles upon an advert for a castle rental on the Italian Riviera. She also meets Rose Arnott, a woman Lotty and her husband have seen at church and have referred to as "the disappointed Madonna" because of her long dark hair and crestfallen countenance. Soon, Lotty is hectoring stranger Rose to join her for a month's sojourn to Italy, without their oppressive husbands.(Note: Your suspension of disbelief gets a workout in this one, so you'd better strip down to leotard and Pumas.)
Instead of calling for help, Rose lets herself be dragged into Lotty's scheme, and they decide to split the hefty rental tab by advertising for two other women to share the Mediterranean digs. Of course, they come up with two adorably eccentric ladies: Caroline, a beauteous, sexually adventurous socialite with a Tragic Past, and Mrs. Graves, a petrified old harridan who immediately announces that she "does not approve of informal idioms of speech." What a wacky group! In addition to shoehorning these unlikely women into the same house (see How to Write Big Laffs, chapter one, page 9), playwright Barber also delays the joyful jaunt until Act Two. There is no real dramatic reason for this, other than allowing the stage crew plenty of intermission time to change the set from bleak English interiors to a sun-splashed oceanside patio.
Once the gals are ensconced in the castle, Lotty goes bonkers over all the flowers, twirls from pillar to post, and declares herself to be in heaven. Hey, we know how it is, first day at the beach and all. But that's as deep as the joy goes. Barber never allows his four females to truly escape from their stultifying existence in England and engage in some empowering female bonding. Instead, Lotty's first idea, after a quick spin in a rowboat, is to invite their husbands to join them! Yes, that would be the same husbands they were trying to ditch in the first place. Ah, but if the guys don't show up, the plot twists won't work, such as the Titillating Revelation that Caroline has been filling the hole in her heart by having an affair with Rose's husband -- a fact that she unaccountably blurts out to freeze-dried Mrs. Graves, of all people.
The Play House cast tries hard to animate these sock-puppet characters, some more successfully than others. In the key role of Lotty, Blake Lindsley has a nice edge in the first act, when she's trying to assemble her vacation posse. But once she hits Italy, she turns into a puddle of Pollyanna-ish porridge, conveying happiness that seems a mile wide and an inch deep. As her husband, Mellersh, John Hines is excellent, twitching his thin mustache and handling the hackneyed towel-dropping scene with panache. Monette Magrath and Jill Tanner are fine as Caroline and Mrs. Graves, respectively. But the worst-written roles are Rose and her husband Frederick, since they are required first to be emotionally distant, for no reason that we know of, and then suddenly to fall back in love simply because of the "enchantment" of their Tuscan time-share. Clearly, director Michael Wilson should have helped Roxanna Hope and Sean Haberle find a better approach for these two aimless characters.
For all its faults, Enchanted April perfectly targets this theater's well-heeled subscriber base. This was particularly clear when Mrs. Graves observed: "Inheritance is so much more respectable than acquisition." That got a big laugh and appreciative applause from the "tax work, not wealth" members of the audience.
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