Should the playwright A.R. Gurney Jr. be congratulated on fitting out the splendid Irene Worth with a stylish role, or should we simply consider him extremely lucky to have landed her in the first place for his three-character comedy "The Golden Age," which opened last night at the Lawrence? Whichever, this is a pleasant but attenuated diversion of the sort Philip Barry might have tossed aside before moving along to "The Philadelphia Story," but it is graced enormously by the star's presence.
At 80, Isabel Hastings Hoyt, a grand lady who was on intimate terms with the great of a half-century and more ago, is a recluse in her upper East Side brownstone, the last of five homes she and her late husband moved among at one time. Worse, she's broke, and upon her death, the whole kit and caboodle became the property of a historical society. Still, what concerns her most is the fate of her only companion, her granddaughter Virginia, twice married and twice divorced and well on her way to becoming an alcoholic.
Enter Tom, a handsome young man out of the West, currently teaching literature here. He's not only dead set on writing about this fabulous woman, but, better yet, he's convinced for some reason that a lost chapter from "The Great Gatsby," either carelessly or willfully left behind while Fitzgerald was a guest, is lying about the house somewhere. Tom, you see, is bananas about the '20s, which he considers a golden age. And Isabel, who quickly perceives him as a likely prospect for Virginia, is only too willing to drop names and hints, true or false, by the dozens. Having hobnobbed not only with Fitzgerald, but with sucy as Trotsky and Freud (a humidor is avowedly filled with, so to speak, Freudian cigars), she is obviously equipped to supply several fresh choruses to "I Can't Get Started" (oh, yes, there's an unpublished Cole Porter manuscript entitled "Isabel," too).
Though Gurney lays on this patina pretty thick, Worth, looking unbelievably svelte and spry, and nowhere near the age assigned to Isabel, carries it all off with such style that the stage seems empty whenever she leaves it, in spite of the appealing performances by Stockard Channing as Virginia and Jeff Daniels as Tom.
While Gurney is a civilized writer capable of amusing turns of phrase, he has not succeeded in making a convincing case for his characters or for his basic story, for that matter, which was "suggested" by Henry James' story "The Aspern Papers," itself converted into a play many years back by Michael Redgrave and, incidentally, now being revived in London. We in the audience are not likely, for example, to share Tom's view of a "hole" or "gap" in Fitzgerald's novel (Tom thinks it describes Gatsby's bedding of Daisy), and we know in advance that the missing manuscript will never really turn up, though Gurney teases us right up to the protracted finish.
The love story, if such it is, between Tom and Virginia is a shaky affair, too, as he begins to draw her out of herself after moving into the attic room supposedly occupied by Fitzgerald for a spell. Over the spring and summer spanned by the play, Tom returns for a month or so to St. Paul, where he's left a wife he hasn't gotten around to divorcing yet, to think things over. And it's this part of the play about which the author appears unsettled as well, so that any charm attaching to the relationship is supplied almost solely by these accomplished young actors. In effect, "The Golden Age" is a one-woman show with some fringe activity.
John Tillinger has directed the play capably in an expansive and marvelously detailed setting of Isabel's second-story front room designed by Oliver Smith. Jane Greenwood's costumes, especially one particularly stunning outfit for Worth, are first-rate. Arden Fingerhut has lighted the work glowingly.
But although Worth shines throughout in a performance that merits a visit all by itself, an essential spark is missing from "The Golden Age."
A great actress in search of a great part. A potentially important - very important - playwright in search of a very important play. They were made for each other.
But they weren't. His fault - regretfully - not hers. A polite, distinctive rather than distinct - for he knows language and she grew great using it - failure. And, interesting. Sort of an interesting failure. Sort of.
Failure has its own perspectives, conjunctions and interests. Oh, by the way, we are talking about the softly glittering and wonderful Irene Worth, who last night opened in the brilliant A.R. Gurney's tantalizing new play at the Jack Lawrence Theater, The Golden Age.
Gurney is very bright. He is a playwright who has, hitherto, carved out a territory of the midi-rich, the hopefully upwardly transient. Yet also, a playwright of the solid - the past enshrined, enshrined in a nostalgia of cellophane. The cellophane of forgetful happiness.
The play is simple enough. A young writer and scholar is encountering a famous - perhaps notorious rather than famous - old woman. She was an emblem of the '20s - that golden age. She knew Fitzgerald...but then, she knew everyone. Lawrences, for example, D.H., T.E. or simply Gertrude.
It is possibly - largely, horrendously - possible that she owns an unknown manuscript - a lost excerpt from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Certainly she has in her knowledge areas of past heroics still yet untrammelled by literary research. Or perhaps she does not. She could be a fake. Certainly she does have a moderately eligible alcoholic granddaughter whom she needs to sell off, or, at least, provide for.
She has the manuscripts and the paintings and the memories. She seems honest. She has brandy from Trotsky and cigars from Freud. And the hero - with a misplaced marriage, and a literary enthusiast - appears willing to make some kind of dramatic deal.
Gurney - the playwright - messes everything up with a kind of casual disregard for relevance. His words float up, clearly enough, but they too often float down to emptiness.
What happens? Nothing happens! With any luck boy gets girl at end. But Gurney is not so simplistic. He has taken us through some kind of literary mill, and at the end we must suffer a perplexing wonderment.
Miss Worth dies. What was it she left to a probing world? Were there ecstasies untold, theories, of all those lost and wonderful cocktail and '20s people, left undiscovered. Gurney never divulges. In dramatic effect, Gurney cheats.
His hero, like us, is left "with a lot of unsupported talk about spoilt soup and skinny-dipping," a man "rolling around in books like a dog in dead fish." Sad - but it could have been funny, radiant, illuminating. It isn't.
Yet take Miss Worth - one of our great actresses. Look at the lady here - sculptured hair, engraved dimples, etched eyebrows and knowing glances, a caricature by Hirschfeld come to naughty life, and you cry for genius.
There is greatness on the hoof, and our theater cannot control it. Stockard Channing - a really interesting woman - and Jeff Daniels did their best with a script that eluded belief.
For the benefit of the record this thwarted detective story has been staged with total elegance by John Tillinger, the opulently bohemian setting (full of just the right and telling decorative touches) is by Oliver Smith and the wisely apt costumes are by Jane Greenwood.
But at the end nothing quite adds up. A bizarre love story has not been consummated, a literary conceit has not been perfected, a historical game has not been pulled off.
Here's a clue. Gurney disarmingly tells us that his play was "suggested by The Aspern Papers by Henry James." Well, perhaps but not strongly enough suggested.
Sir Michael Redgrave once adapted the original James novella (oddly enough it has just been revived in London) and that adaptation - charming, wise and exquisitely atmospheric - avoids just the pitfalls and pratfalls that Gurney seems to court.
You see James (and Redgrave) never made the mistake of reality - there never really was a famous American poet called Aspern, so the ghosts around his faded Venetian palazzo hold their secrets. The very real presence of Fitzgerald and his companions on the other hand, lurk around The Golden Age like disconsolate wraiths, with no real secrets to offer. Nor has the play.
At first, there is a promising luster to ''The Golden Age,'' the new play by A. R. Gurney Jr. Upon entering the Jack Lawrence Theater - formerly the Playhouse, and attractively refurbished - we confront an elegant old East Side brownstone drawing room. This set is designed by Oliver Smith, as all such drawing rooms must be, and, once the play begins, the lighting designer Arden Fingerhut bathes the wall-to-wall antiques in a dusk-hued glow. Then we meet the fine cast: Jeff Daniels, Stockard Channing and the incomparable Irene Worth. As they dig into Mr. Gurney's chipper opening scene, we can sight pay dirt.
But that glimmer proves to be gold plate rather than a motherlode. By the second scene, it's clear that something is missing from ''The Golden Age,'' and by intermission we're still waiting expectantly for the play to get going. It never does. In this polished, professional production, the slick veneer is all there is - and it's not enough to stave off tedium.
Mr. Gurney, the author of ''The Dining Room'' and other excellent plays, has attempted to write his own answer to Henry James's story ''The Aspern Papers.'' His protagonist, Tom (Mr. Daniels), is a fanatical young F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar who concocts a ruse to invade the home of a reclusive dowager, Isabel Hastings Hoyt (Miss Worth). Mrs. Hoyt was a notorious, Daisy Buchanan-like intimate of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald crowd in the 1920's, and she may have a lost chapter of ''The Great Gatsby'' among her many mementos. Once she catches on to Tom's game, she even considers giving him the manuscript. But there's a price attached: Tom must first romance and rescue Virginia (Miss Channing), the twice-divorced alcoholic who is Mrs. Hoyt's lonely companion and granddaughter.
It would be invidious to compare Mr. Gurney's work to James's masterpiece (in which the setting is Venice and the academic interloper is pursuing the papers of a thinly disguised Lord Byron). A play cannot reproduce the governing consciousness of James's fiction, and, besides, Mr. Gurney's aims are different. While ''The Aspern Papers'' is a dark portrait of an opportunist, ''The Golden Age'' is meant as light drawing-room comedy - complete with a decidedly counter-Jamesian happy ending. Mr. Gurney has often seemed a potential successor to Philip Barry; if ''The Golden Age'' had succeeded, it might have resembled Barry's ''Philadelphia Story'' (which also sends a prying literary man into a fabled mansion).
Mr. Gurney fails because his characters are too pale and unconvincing to turn his plot into either drama or high comedy. Though Tom and Virginia's affair begins under false pretenses, we're ultimately supposed to believe that the liaison ennobles and liberates both participants. Virginia gives up the bottle, and Tom considers leaving academia behind to become a novelist in his own right. Yet Mr. Gurney never reveals the emotional (or sexual) chemistry that purportedly draws these two together and transforms their personalities - and that might draw us to them, too.
In the opening scene, Virginia is a dipsomaniacal drudge, but soon thereafter, without credible explanation, she's perky and self-possessed. Tom is a puzzling blank throughout. If he's really a professor of American literature, why does he believe that ''Gatsby'' needs another chapter to ''come together''? (Is he confusing ''Gatsby'' with the unfinished ''Last Tycoon''?) It's impossible to tell at any point what, if anything, he really feels for Virginia - and his Act II transition from feckless cad to prince is announced, not dramatized. Just before the cute curtain scene, he asks the granddaughter, ''Who do you think I am?'' - and it's no surprise when she answers, ''I don't know.''
Mrs. Hoyt, meanwhile, is not the figure of mystery and literary grandeur that Mr. Gurney intends. Though she drops big names (from Cole Porter to T. E. Lawrence) ad infinitum (and nauseum) in every autobiographical speech, she seems to have stepped out of ''Auntie Mame,'' not ''A Moveable Feast.'' (''Men are like horses, and I think every woman should learn how to ride,'' goes one campy epigram.) Nonetheless, Miss Worth does have the best monologue - a debunking of patrician glamour that shows off Mr. Gurney's otherwise dormant gifts as a pungent observer of the American caste system. And, as always, it's a joy to watch this actress give a precise shape to every word and gesture. Variously coquettish and shrewd and ruthless, Miss Worth commands the stage like a grand peacock - so much so that we rarely believe that Mrs. Hoyt is, as claimed, on the brink of poverty and death.
Mr. Daniels and Miss Channing bring considerable charm to bear on characters left unrealized in the text, just as they respectively did in ''Terms of Endearment'' and ''The Lady and the Clarinet.'' John Tillinger's direction is impeccable: Mr. Gurney's brittle lines always snap brightly through the gilded drawing room, even as ''The Golden Age'' steadily flickers out.