That "Ring Round the Moon" is set in a hothouse seems appropriate. The atmosphere is stifling and airless, and whatever grows is forced and artificial.
Written by Jean Anouilh in 1946, the play takes place in the rarified world of the French upper class before World War I.
The play's brittle comedy depends on the nuances of social class. Its efforts at profundity are concerned, above all, with rich peoples' games. Even the play itself is a self-conscious game, and uses one of the hoariest comic devices identical twins.
One of the twins, Hugo, is engaged in an elaborate deception. He hires a beautiful dancer to shake his brother of his obsession with a woman he himself loves. In the 1950s, conceits like this seemed rather daring. Now, they're a bit tiresome.
To exert any real grip on a contemporary audience, "Ring Round the Moon" needs to be staged with a special elegance. It has to make up in style what it lacks in substance. And Gerald Gutierrez' production, presented by Lincoln Center, is fatally short on style.
With John Lee Beatty's elegant set and John David Ridge's gorgeous costumes, it does have a sumptuous look. But neither the direction nor the acting come close to the kind of haughty confidence that the play demands.
Gutierrez never makes us believe that we are in an enclosed world with its own codes and meanings. Even the accents, sometimes British, sometimes American, wander back and forth across the Atlantic.
The stage tricks involved in Toby Stephens' playing of both twins are labored, and the attempts to liven things up with knockabout comedy are heavy-handed.
The acting, meanwhile, is fatally uncertain, with only Marian Seldes as the old matriarch and Richard Clarke as the butler having a clear sense of what they are doing.
All in all, this "Moon" sheds little light on the mystery of why Gutierrez wanted to revive the play at all.
Like a meal in a expensive French restaurant, the Broadway season is ending with a fancy dessert, one of those things where a chateau is constructed out of chocolate, ice cream and meringue.
Jean Anouilh's 1947 "Ring Round the Moon" takes place "in the winter garden of Madame Desmermortes' chateau in France in the spring of 1912" (that about says it all) and centers around identical twins interested in the wrong girls on the eve of a ball.
If you're going to revive fluff like this - the sell-by date of which had already passed in 1947 - it's wise to give it a new twist. This production is pretty much old wine in old bottles.
It's the performers who energize the thing, to a point. Toby Stephens commands the stage with cheeky verve and articulate charm.
He has a lot to do, too: He's both Hugo, a debonair Lothario who has no heart, and twin Frederic, shy, timid, lovelorn. Watching Stephens vanish with an arrogant flourish at one side of the stage and come in with a hangdog, moping gait at the other side a second later is a real pleasure.
Hugo is dismayed that Diana, a cold-hearted heiress, has snagged Frederic. He has hired Isabelle (lovely Gretchen Egolf), an impoverished ballerina, to impersonate an alluring society belle at the ball in order to divert his brother's emotions.
The twins are nephews of the imperious Madame, who is brought to life by Marian Seldes in a wheelchair ordering everyone about and explaining life and love and reminiscing about the mad, violent days of her aristocratic youth.
Seldes is a high, ironic comedienne of the grand old school, able to pierce with a quip or flatten with a glance. She clenches her jaws and hollows her cheeks after each devastating utterance, but the woman becomes, in Seldes' hands, less a monster than a matchmaker, and a better one than Hugo.
Among the minor parts of the farcical pattern are Isabelle's pushy and vulgar mother, played by Joyce Van Patten with a shrill broadness out of keeping with the rest of the play, and a daffy adventuress called India, to whom Candy Buckley brings the right note of comic mischief.
And then there are Diana, performed with beautifully sharp chic by Haviland Morris, and her father, the "melancholy millionaire" Messerschmann, touchingly incarnated by the suave, sad-eyed, baritone-voiced Fritz Weaver. Messerschmann is a paradox-loving philosopher-businessman straight out of George Bernard Shaw, but Anouilh also makes him Jewish and lends him some stereotypical traits of the Jewish financier.
Despite Messerschmann's benevolent function, I find Anouilh's use, here and elsewhere, of such Jewish stereotypes to be not critical of but complicit with anti-Semitism.
In general, I find Anouilh's shallow cynicism unnourishing. "Every country has its special weaknesses, its favorite way of being false," wrote Eric Bentley. "Anouilh [is the] French way."
Turning certain plays from French into English is like dragging vampires into the sunlight. They shriek, they curdle, they shrivel, while shedding the elegant, arrogant authority they display in their natural element. There is in particular a French brand of theatrical whimsy, extensively practiced around the middle of this century, that usually turns into dust in the mouths of American actors, however capable.
Such a metamorphosis can be witnessed firsthand at the Belasco Theater, where the Lincoln Center production of Jean Anouilh's ''Ring Round the Moon'' (''L'Invitation au Chateau'') opened last night. This 1947 play, the story of one perversely enchanted evening of a grand ball, is an uneasy example of those Gallic fantasias, equal parts preciousness and cynicism, in which Anouilh specialized. It is the sort of work that makes you say, if you're feeling charitable, ''Oh, those worldly, romantic French.''
The surprise of the new revival isn't that it doesn't come off, but that anyone thought it might in the first place. When the work was first seen in New York in 1950, after a widely praised production by the young Peter Brook in London, its title had an explanatory appendage: ''a charade with music,'' not words to inspire confidence in Broadway theatergoers.
Brooks Atkinson, while finding much to like about the play in his review in The New York Times, also wrote, ''It gives an impression of being enervated at the source.'' The production closed after 69 performances and has seldom been seen on these shores since.
The current incarnation, directed by Gerald Gutierrez, uses the original and still creditable adaptation by Christopher Fry, the eminent British playwright and a natural soul mate to Anouilh and Giraudoux. Mr. Fry gave Anouilh's sententious declarations on the mysteries of love and life a Wildean ring, and the play's presiding grande dame (played here by Marian Seldes) can indeed come across as a worldlier version of Lady Bracknell. Well, sort of. Characters aren't all that fixed in ''Ring Round the Moon,'' and Anouilh lets the wind of allegory and fancy blow them where it will. To work, the whole enterprise has to register as a sustained magician's illusion, a trick of the light. The straightforward, farcical approach brought to bear on this latest interpretation, which features opulent but too, too solid sets and costumes by John Lee Beatty and John David Ridge respectively, suggests someone stepping on a soap bubble in hobnailed boots.
Set in the winter garden of a chateau in the spring of 1912, ''Ring Round the Moon'' has only a trifle of a plot, but what there is defies easy summary. At its center is a patrician pair of identical twins (both played by the dapper English actor Toby Stephens). One, Frederic, is sweet and innocent, while the other, Hugo, is sour and devious.
Frederic is engaged to the rich and ravishing Diana (Haviland Morris), who really loves Hugo, who in turn decides to save his brother from a loveless marriage by smuggling Isabelle, a poor but honest young ballet dancer (Gretchen Egolf), into the party given by his aristocratic aunt, Mme. Desmermortes (Ms. Seldes). . . . Oh, never mind.
The main thing you need to know is that ''Ring,'' like much of Anouilh's work, pits the forces of innocence, embodied by a girl of great purity, against those of an iniquitous and sophisticated society. However, unlike similarly themed Anouilh works (''Antigone,'' ''The Rehearsal''), this one lets love triumph, though not before introducing some chilly currents of sadism and social oppression, including a bizarre premonition of the Holocaust to come.
In other words, ''Ring'' is, by the standards of American theater, neither fish nor fowl, and its ambiguities seem to have stymied Mr. Gutierrez, who was so good at bringing out the complexities of ''The Heiress'' and elucidating those of Edward Albee's ''Delicate Balance.'' As one often felt with his production of ''Ivanov'' recently, Mr. Gutierrez seems to have given up on achieving an all-embracing tone.
Instead, he has given his greatest attention to self-contained broadly comic sequences, like a leadenly erotic tango between two illicit lovers played by Candy Buckley and Derek Smith. Mostly the actors, who include such worthy performers as Frances Conroy, Joyce Van Patten, Fritz Weaver and Simon Jones, have been left to find their own way.
Ms. Conroy, who at least seems to be enjoying herself, provides a few smile-making sparks as Capulat, the romanticizing spinster companion to Mme. Desmermortes. Mr. Jones, as the ballerina's stuffy, nervous patron, brings a naturalistic centeredness to his role, which definitely puts him in a minority. And Ms. Van Patten, as Isabelle's absurdly affected mother, appears to be channeling Shelly Winters, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense here.
Mr. Stephens, a rising star in London, cuts an undeniable swath through the evening, and you always know which twin he is supposed to be. But the actor, who brings to mind a Hugh Grant without humor, is so intensely mannered here that he starts to seem grotesque in ways more appropriate to the M.C. role in ''Cabaret.''
Isabelle is one of those roles that was made for the young Audrey Hepburn or Claire Bloom, or possibly Julie Harris, who did well by Anouilh in the 1950's. (Ms. Bloom in fact created the role in London.) The character must positively shimmer with profound, otherworldly simplicity, or else the play has no center. And Ms. Egolf, while she has a swan-necked look that does recall Hepburn, is also very obviously of this world.
Ms. Seldes, who was originally to play Mme. Desmermortes only at matinee performances, assumed her role full time after Irene Worth suffered a stroke. (Ms. Worth is expected to return to the part.) She plays her imperious character with an augerlike sharpness and a surprising restraint, and the show's funniest moments come when she is barking orders about the manipulation of her wheelchair.
Yet while Ms. Seldes is perfectly comfortable delivering arch epigrams about the ways of the upper crust, she exasperatedly switches on the automatic pilot when her character turns into a benevolent, Olympian matchmaker at the play's end. Who can blame her? An air of uncertainty pervades the production. Even the ethereal, spell-casting music of Francis Poulenc seems to wander in at random.
When ''Ring'' was first seen on Broadway, Mr. Atkinson wrote that there was ''something incomplete'' about the play, as though its author ''only half believes in it.'' Nearly half a century later, no one in this production has come close to finding the faith to make ''Ring Round the Moon'' whole.
Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Jean Anouilh's "Ring Round the Moon" is a real heartbreaker, but it's for all the wrong reasons. Christopher Fry's adaptation of Anouilh's comedy has not often been staged since its original London and Broadway productions in 1950, and it's easy to see why: The play is uncommonly delicate, a poetic mixture of farce, romance and comedy of manners that must also accommodate a whiff or two of mortal thoughts (it was written in the shadow of World War II). Fry subtitled his sparkling adaptation "A Charade With Music," and indeed it has the sweeping rhythms of a dance -- not for nothing is the play's heroine a ballerina. Unfortunately, what's onstage at the Belasco Theater more often than not has two left feet. Gerald Gutierrez's largely miscast production betrays the play's gossamer sensibility; what should taste like a spun-sugar confection goes down more like chewy taffy.
The disenchantments begin even as the curtain rises on John Lee Beatty's set, a rather literal-minded reworking of Oliver Messel's famed London original. Beatty's garden gazebo manages the singular feat of seeming both flimsy and oppressive. The airiness that is the soul of the play is lost -- the characters cavort in this chamber like trapped moths. (The play cries out for the liberating imagination of a Bob Crowley.)
The young British actor Toby Stephens plays the central roles of the twins Hugo and Frederic, and here, too, delicacy is lacking. Stephens comes from sturdy theatrical stock -- he's the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens -- and he's definitely an actor in the grand English tradition. As such, he does not have a natural, light touch, as anyone who saw him in the Almeida Theater Co.'s recent Racine plays at BAM could attest (and surely the producers did).
Stephens does have an authentic upper-crust charm, and is amusingly snippy as the heartless Hugo, whose scheme to wean his twin brother from his love for Diana Messerschmann (Haviland Morris) -- who in turn loves Hugo -- sets the carousel of the plot in motion. But as the lovesick Frederic, he's really just Hugo sulking -- there's no soul in his Frederic, no romance. His performance is professional but artificial, and more artifice is the last thing this sweet piece of whimsy needs.
The play is set in 1912 France, at the chateau of the twins' aunt Madame Desmermortes (Marian Seldes), an imperious woman whose reliance on a wheelchair hasn't kept her from ruling her little fiefdom with an iron fist.
Guests at the chateau include Diana's father, Messerschmann (Fritz Weaver), a Jewish business magnate who controls the destinies of his fellow visitors; Lady India (Candy Buckley), Messerschmann's mistress and Desmermortes' niece; and his secretary Patrice Bombelles (Derek Smith), who also happens to be India's lover.
Hugo has invited to the chateau a beautiful ballerina from Paris, Isabelle (Gretchen Egolf), in the hopes that by turning her into the belle of the ball he can turn Frederic's head, curing him of his hopeless love for Diana. But the sensitive Isabelle, as fate would have it, falls instantly for Hugo himself, and it takes some sorting out before she is united in bliss with the equally sensitive Frederic.
With everyone either in love, trying to get out of it or observing it with variously cynical, practical or sentimental attitudes, the play is a comic poem on the struggles of romance. It also contains wry reflections on the elusive nature of happiness: Diana's riches can't win her the love of Hugo and her father's constitution is so poisoned by the excesses delivered by his wealth that he has been relegated to a diet of unsalted, unbuttered noodles.
But the subtle strains of melancholy and the affectionate tone that suffuses the comedy mostly are muted here. Emblematic of the production's clumsiness is the bull-in-a-china-shop performance of Joyce Van Patten as Isabelle's mother. Her character is supposed to be silly and pretentious but Anouilh observes even her with a measure of sympathy, but you'd never guess it from this production, which turns her into a crass buffoon with an American accent. When she complains to Isabelle, "There's not an ounce of poetry in you," it's preposterous -- she should talk?
Indeed all the characters in "Ring Round the Moon" are dusted with poetry, even the most fiercely pragmatic or comically cynical. And yet virtually none of the performers in this production gives lyrical or graceful performances. The fault is the director's; Gutierrez plays the comedy too heavily and lets the tender essence of the play evaporate.
Morris' Diana is a flat, shallow interpretation of a character whose haunted depths are revealed in a striking monologue in the second act, when she recalls a traumatic childhood experience of anti-Semitism; this feeling should infuse the rest of the performance but doesn't. The pathos of Messerschmann himself is only hinted at by the gruff Weaver. Buckley's India, replete with tongue-in-cheek English accent, isn't even convincing as a small-L lady, and her business with Smith's Patrice is overcooked.
The beautiful, dark-eyed Egolf has a graceful, willowy presence and comes very close to capturing the ethereal spirit of Isabelle. But the role requires an actress who can suggest infinite feeling with the subtlest of inflections, and Egolf ultimately cannot (merely to look at a photo of Claire Bloom in the original production is to be enchanted).
The estimable Seldes is gloriously entertaining as she dishes out Desmermortes' eloquently phrased, Lady Bracknellesque put-downs, but she is not entirely right for the role. Her astringent delivery of the part's waspish witticisms ultimately obscures the essential goodness of the character. (Irene Worth was to have played it, with Seldes gallantly doing one performance a week, but Worth had to withdraw due to a stroke.)
While Simon Jones strikes just the right, straightforward note in his small role, it's really only Frances Conroy, also in the small part of Desmermortes' companion, who manages to walk the fine line between tender feeling and high comedy that runs through the play. Her overwhelmed effusions about the young lovers' fates are both brilliantly funny and tinged with a real pathos. She isn't onstage for long, but Conroy makes the most of her time.
Sadly, the same can't be said for the production itself. This revival of a lovely play about romantic opportunities seized is a theatrical opportunity lost.