We have waited so long for spring, and now it must already be summer, since we have a piece of summer stock on Broadway in the form of "Enchanted April.”
Adapted by Matthew Barber from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the play is about two repressed English housewives who rent a villa in Italy in 1922 and find two wealthier women to help offset the cost. There are many novels about uptight Brits blossoming in less-constricted climes. Von Arnim's may not be the deepest, but it is wittier than Barber's adaptation. The first act introduces the women, which might be done more concisely. In a miscalculation almost as grave as enclosing a copy of the novel in the press kit, this act loses what might have been a cool bit of theatricality by not contrasting at least a glimpse of warm Italy with the bleak London where we linger so long. Instead of subtly showing the women develop, the second act offers only contrivance - one of the wealthy women, for example, is having an affair with the husband of one of the housewives and has invited him to visit her. I have nothing against farce, but here it seems a cop-out on the theme of a woman seeing herself in a new light. Similarly, a sequence where the other visiting husband has trouble with the antiquated plumbing and runs onstage clad only in a towel seems lame. As the frustrated housewife who initiates the journey, Jayne Atkinson is radiant throughout. Molly Ringwald has a sameness as her ally. Dagmara Dominczyk is suitably glamorous as the countess with whom Ringwald's husband is dallying. Daniel Gerroll is wonderfully smooth and oily as the husband. Michael Cumpsty captures the fuddy-duddy quality of Atkinson's husband well and handles his bum-baring scene gracefully. Patricia Conolly is expectedly funny as the Italian maid. So is Elizabeth Ashley as a name-dropping grande dame, though at times she seems strained. The costumes are splendid, while the set sometimes overshadows the action. All in all, it has the thinness of rosewater.
Thanks partly to an adroit screenplay by Peter Barnes, Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel "The Enchanted April" gave rise, a decade ago, to an enchanting Mike Newell movie.
The question at the Belasco Theatre last night was whether Matthew Barber's new play, based on that same novel, could prove as blissfully enchanting.
The answer seems to be a qualified yes. Yet Barber's adaptation, which like the movie shortens the title to "Enchanted April," is neither as smooth nor as fluent as the 1991 film - though it's just as exquisitely cast.
The story is of two dowdy, depressed middle-class London housewives who decide to rent a villa in Tuscany for a vacation away from their husbands and their dreary marriages.
They recruit two other, very different Englishwomen to share the cost and experience, and after initial difficulties eventually make it to their wisteria-laden Shangri-La.
There they find just the romance they needed, although not perhaps the romance we - or even they - expected.
Call it a feminist's novel, a chick flick or simply a woman's play, "Enchanted April" is still a story with sufficient sexual resonance to appeal just as much to men.
The play, which started life at the Hartford Stage, is in two very disparate sections. The first, set in London, is a series of short, interlocking scenes of exposition staged with a utilitarian sparseness.
After the intermission, the action moves to Tuscany, where, like Tony Straiges' sunburst scenery and Rui Rita's effulgent lighting, it almost literally flowers.
Yet for some playgoers the sun may have come too late - and here unquestionably the movie had a vast advantage in both settings and setup.
Michael Wilson's staging is neat and elegant (he even makes the best of that first-act awkwardness) and the acting, like the period-apt costumes by Jess Goldstein, proves deliciously stylish.
As the two middle-aged frumpish ducklings transformed by love and sunshine to near-swans, a reluctant Molly Ringwald and a transcendently transformed Jayne Atkinson are delightful.
Indeed, the whole cast catches the fey spirit of the book.
A crusty Elizabeth Ashley, as the formidable old gal Lord Tennyson used to pat on the head, and the glamorous Dagmara Dominczyk make up the rest of the odd houseparty; a pompous Michael Cumpsty and a rakish Daniel Gerroll are perfect as a pair of husbands, while a sporty Michael Hayden and a wickedly Italianate Patricia Conolly complete the Tuscan crew.
"Enchanted April" is more diverting than illuminating, but considering the current Broadway line-up, diversion begins to look better and better.
The Mediterranean sun has nothing on Jayne Atkinson. In Matthew Barber's ''Enchanted April,'' the watery romantic comedy that opened last night at the Belasco Theater, it may be that ole devil sun that brings out the hedonists in a group of repressed Englishwomen vacationing in Italy. But it's Ms. Atkinson, as one of the vacationers, who produces the truly magical transformation. Whenever she's onstage, she turns a weak cup of theatrical treacle into a brimming beaker of ambrosia.
Portraying a downtrodden lawyer's wife with the soul of a poet, Ms. Atkinson is so good that she herself seems to be the subject of some strange Ovidian enchantment: a creature of exuberant flesh and blood trapped in a forest of cardboard. Despite the presence of the famously vivid Molly Ringwald and Elizabeth Ashley, ''Enchanted April,'' directed by Michael Wilson, mostly feels like a collection of sleepwalking stereotypes forever awaiting liberation from the rusty formula that enchains them.
Adapted by Mr. Barber from Elizabeth von Arnim's novel of 1922, ''Enchanted April'' is a harmless exercise in wish fulfillment not unlike those television commercials in which harried housewives escape their lives by slipping into bubble baths. The British novelist Rebecca West, while praising von Arnim's pastel prose, said the book's rose-colored story suffered ''from a fatal tendency to humbug.'' But you can still appreciate its sudsy appeal, a trait evident in the 1992 film adaptation by Mike Newell, which starred Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright. Mr. Newell had the advantage of lush, light-drenched location photography in Portofino, a visual equivalent of von Arnim's seductively fine-spun prose. In the stage version, which was originally produced by the Hartford Stage Company and features underdesigned sets by Tony Straiges, there is no similar protective camouflage.
Though the play's second act, set in Italy, brings out some small orange trees and miniature sparkling chandeliers, this threadbare production places the larger burden of lyrical make-believe on the performers. That several of them are conspicuously miscast makes the whole enterprise especially heavy lifting.
The plot, which here sheds even von Arnim's slender nuances of characterization, traces the blossoming of four spiritually stunted women, all strangers to one another when the play begins, who join to rent a coastal Italian villa for a month. They are of calculatedly different stripes, as are the problems that keep them from enjoying life.
Lotty Wilton (Ms. Atkinson), who initiates the vacation scheme, is a caged free spirit whose identity has blurred in the shadow of her husband, Mellersh (Michael Cumpsty). The judgmental, pious Rose Arnott (Ms. Ringwald) is also unhappily married, to Frederick (Daniel Gerroll), who writes naughty historical biographies.
Lady Caroline Bramble (Dagmara Dominczyk), a languid society beauty, is exhausted by the attentions of avid fortune hunters, while Mrs. Graves (Ms. Ashley) is a censorious Victorian dragon of a widow. The first act, set in rainy London, establishes the sources of its heroines' dissatisfaction; the second act, in sunny Italy, devotes itself to turning urban frowns into smiles of bliss.
That there is no suspense in the working out of this transformation is part of its comfort factor. Still, in this rendering, ''Enchanted April'' relies almost entirely on formula to pull heartstrings while skimping on luxuries like character development and eccentricities that don't come out of an Identikit.
Much of the play's humor derives from the sort of Englishman-abroad jokes that might have been found in an old Punch magazine. So poor Mr. Cumpsty has to express Mellersh's desire for a bath in exaggerated pantomime to an uncomprehending Italian maid (Patricia Conolly), who in turn uses the language gap to hurl sly insults at the bossy Mrs. Graves. There are also some mild high jinks of the elbow-nudging school of English sex farces, in which the maid walks in upon stolen kisses, and Mr. Cumpsty bares his bottom.
Mr. Cumpsty and Mr. Gerroll, accomplished veterans both, draw their cartoonish characters amiably enough, while the handsome Michael Hayden (of ''Carousel''), as the castello's landlord, is simply required to be handsome. Ms. Conolly, saddled with a cute foreigner role, milks it shamelessly. And Ms. Dominczyk, while physically glamorous, seems to have at best a nodding acquaintance with her character.
Neither Ms. Ringwald nor Ms. Ashley naturally fits her part, though Ms. Ringwald is likably game in her impersonation of a severe matron. Ms. Ashley, best known for playing Southern sexpots, brings plenty of gusto (and a bizarre whiff of magnolias) to Mrs. Graves. But she can't resist going after the audience's affections with the desperate coquettishness of Amanda Wingfield wooing gentleman callers in ''The Glass Menagerie.''
Ms. Atkinson, one of the best things about the recent revival of ''Our Town,'' has a role that is potentially more irritating than all the others combined. Lotty is one of those irrepressible frumps who show up in popular English fiction from Agatha Christie to Angela Thirkell as a madcap vicar's wife, perhaps, or a dotty amateur sleuth.
''My husband says that my mind is like a hummingbird,'' she confesses to the audience. ''One seldom sees it land.'' It's the sort of declaration that can make you want to strangle the speaker. Yet Ms. Atkinson delivers it not smugly but apologetically, cutting right through the cuteness.
In like manner, a winning combination of hesitancy and impulsiveness infuses the long, home-truth-filled monologue with which Lotty opens the play. The character's genuine radiance here comes from pure, hungry hope, peeking through English clouds of regret, and like nothing else in this production, it captures the shading that keeps von Arnim's writing readable.
Ms. Atkinson even brings idiosyncratic character to her clothes (designed by Jess Goldstein), whether in dowdy London streetwear or a period bathing costume. Dressed in the latter, Lotty scampers about bestowing flowers on her friends, and it is to Ms. Atkinson's great credit that she comes across more as Botticelli's Spring than as one of James Thurber's terrifyingly whimsical women.
When toward the evening's end Lotty exclaims, ''I've been translated,'' you unquestioningly accept that statement. You don't even flinch when she stands on a chair, arms wide, to underscore the point. Ms. Atkinson's conviction turns preciousness into passion. Would that the rest of ''Enchanted April'' were similarly translated.
A thinking woman's chick flick might seem like a contradiction in terms, but that's exactly what the 1992 film Enchanted April aspired to be.
Based on Elizabeth von Arnim's post-World War II novel about a group of English gals who take refuge from their unfulfilling lives in an Italian villa, the film celebrated female bonding in an elegant but sentimental context that inevitably led to male-female bonding. Hey, it told us, post-feminist self-actualization is all well and good, but it never hurts to have Prince Charming around.
The stage adaptation of April that opened Tuesday at Broadway's Belasco Theatre is hardly a carbon copy of the cinematic version, but it subscribes to the same basic premise: that themes and dialogue worthy of a Lifetime TV movie can be elevated by classy direction and a distinguished cast.
In directing the new April, Michael Wilson — a veteran of off-Broadway and Hartford Stage, where this production originated — manages to mitigate the hokey aspects of first-time playwright Matthew Barber's script with conviction and humor.
Act One poses a particular hurdle, essentially serving as a prolonged prelude to the magical vacation that will change the characters' lives. Surely, Barber didn't need an hour to make the case that eccentric Lotty Wilson and prim, repressed Rose Arnott weren't effectively communicating with their husbands, or that these matrons would seem poorly matched to the stuffy old widow and flighty young debutante they enlist as travel companions.
But thanks to the mostly sterling cast that Wilson has assembled, April is less dreary than it should be early on, and blooms later. Jayne Atkinson captures the warmth and whimsy of Lotty, the loopy mastermind of the women's getaway scheme. As Rose, her reluctant conspirator, Molly Ringwald relays a womanly grace that may surprise those who haven't kept track of her post-teen-idol efforts.
The brightest presence on stage, however, is 63-year-old Elizabeth Ashley, who as the aged and chronically agitated Mrs. Graves conceals her well-preserved beauty behind a gray wig and a grumpy mien. Ashley's enduring wit sparkles nonetheless, especially as the old woman begins to lower her guard. What could have easily been a banal metamorphosis becomes wry and winning in Ashley's expert hands.
Dagmara Dominczyk is similarly sassy, if a bit petulant, as Lady Caroline, the lonely socialite who finds amore with a dashing landlord, played by a handsome but unctuous Michael Hayden. Patricia Conolly mugs sweetly as the Italian housekeeper who takes care of the ladies, while Michael Cumpsty and Daniel Gerroll are predictably sturdy as Lotty and Rose's wayward spouses, who — surprise! — turn out to be decent, loving blokes in the end.
Even Tony Straiges' scenery and John Gromada's sound design, rife with bursting flowers and chirping birds, try to make artful use of romantic clichés. Enchanted April may not succeed entirely in that goal, but fans of girl-friendly escapism could do a lot worse.
Audiences who don't go to Broadway plays expecting to be confronted with a stage full of naked baseball players can find suitable relief and refreshment at the Belasco Theater. Yes, there's a glimpse of male nudity in "Enchanted April," but it's just a fleeting moment in an otherwise comfortingly harmless comedy, the theatrical equivalent of a nice cup of tea sweetened with a generous spoonful of sugar. Matthew Barber's adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's novel isn't particularly subtle or graceful -- nor, really, is Michael Wilson's often clunky production -- but it provides the kind of sentimental pleasures veteran theatergoers may be starved for in these uncertain times.
Jayne Atkinson plays Lotty Wilson, a mousy British housewife whose subversive impulses are ignited by a discreet little ad in the Times describing an Italian villa available for let during the month of April. She soon is badgering a new and equally dissatisfied acquaintance, Rose Arnott (Molly Ringwald), into joining her plan to head south to drink in the wisteria and sunshine. Keeping their stuffy husbands in the dark, they recruit the bored "modern," Lady Caroline Bramble (Dagmara Dominczyk), as well as the self-important dowager Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ashley) to split expenses.
The ladies' lengthy preparations for their escape are stretched across a first act that tends to plod. It doesn't help that the budget for Tony Straiges' sets seems to have been entirely apportioned to the Italian half of the evening, so that for the first hour of the show we stare at a few pieces of furniture arrayed against a black backdrop. The intention, presumably, is to provide a stark contrast with the sunny efflorescence that greets us in act two, but it comes across not so much atmospherically dreary as cheap.
Once they arrive on the sun-drenched Mediterranean shores, these variously repressed, dissatisfied, disapproving and bored women begin to blossom, naturally. You don't have to be familiar with the source material -- or the charming 1991 British film -- to chart the various emotional transformations that will take place. But you don't really have time to, either: If the first act tends to drag, the second rushes by, a whirl of colorful frocks and gay laughter, before stopping rather suddenly, like a carousel somebody pulled the plug on.
Accordingly, the would-be poignant moments of communion and revelation among these disparate women are somewhat abruptly dispatched. They tend to get lost amid the busy convolutions of the plot, not to mention some rather laborious comic shenanigans, one of which finds Michael Cumpsty, as Lotty's bossy husband, Mellersh, flashing that flesh after a predictable contretemps with a cranky bath.
Rose's teary confession to Lotty that she lost a child seems to come out of nowhere, for instance, and is brushed aside just as quickly. And Lotty herself, so desperate to escape the constrictions of her marriage in act one, makes an about-face almost as soon as she dips a toe in the soothing waters of the Mediterranean. "We must forgive our husbands, Rose, and ourselves, and get on with things," she effuses, rather vaguely. Her companions forgive her "idiotically illogical" behavior with an instant benevolence the audience may not be ready to share.
Instead of giving the characters and the relationships among them a chance to breathe -- and the actresses who play them a chance to give anything more than superficial performances -- Barber and director Wilson have emphasized the more farcical elements of the plot: Mrs. Graves' waspish wrangling with the Italian maid, Costanza (Patricia Conolly), or the revelation that Rose's husband, Frederick (Daniel Gerroll), is pursuing an affair with Lady Caroline. Some of the cheaper jokes distort the characterizations, too, as when Mrs. Graves admonishes Lady Caroline for her attraction to men by saying, "My mother unbalanced men, and I dare say it can come at quite a heavy cost," and Lady Caroline snaps, "Pricey, was she?"
In general, and unexpectedly, the male members of the cast tend to outshine their female counterparts, perhaps because we don't expect more from their two-dimensional characters. Cumpsty is engaging and funny in his chipper pompousness, and Gerroll nails the oily suavity of Frederick, even if the rapport between Frederick and Rose remains obscure. Michael Hayden, in the underdeveloped role of Antony Wilding, the landlord who rather presumptuously decides to join his tenants for the month, is sincerely sweet and appealing.
Atkinson shines brightest among the distaff ensemble. Clumsy and tentative in the presence of her disapproving husband, whom she can never seem to please, Atkinson's Lotty becomes a veritable sunbeam in act two, radiating joy in her surroundings. Ringwald is on the stiff side as Rose, overplaying the character's prim coolness to the point of obscuring any other qualities. Dominczyk's Lady Caroline is defined more precisely by her shellacked helmet of hair, cigarette holder and silken pantsuits than anything in the writing. Ashley seems to be channeling Edith Evans at times, turning Mrs. Graves into a bargain-basement Lady Bracknell, replete with watered down Wilde-isms.
Just before the play ends, Antony turns to Lady Caroline, the lone available female, and observes, "I've been here two days now and I scarcely know a thing about you." It's easy to sympathize. Despite a couple of hours in the presence of these women cheerily engaged in self-realization, when the curtain comes down we have hardly come to know them at all.