The House of Mirth
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 23, 2012
I went to Metropolitan Playhouse’s production of The House of Mirth expecting to be educated as much as entertained, as often happens with rarely produced classics—in this case, a classic I hadn’t even known existed: a stage adaptation of one of Edith Wharton’s most popular novels, adapted by Wharton herself (with Clyde Fitch, a highly successful, if no longer terribly well-known, early-twentieth-century American playwright) and roughly contemporaneous with the novel’s publication (the book was published in 1905 and the play produced in 1906). But I was not at all sure how well Wharton’s incisive, even rueful observational prose would translate to the stage, or whether her sharply etched portrait of Gilded Age Manhattan socialites would be as effective without either lavish descriptions of the mansions, ballrooms, yachts, which form the novel’s backdrop, or the opulent realism afforded by film.
As it turns out, the adaptation is both clever and elegant, focusing on the intimacies and intricacies of Wharton’s character relationships and gender politics. Moreover, the play’s intense focus on money, and particularly the way those who have money are empowered to live by different rules than those who do not, turns out to be oddly prescient. (Metropolitan Playhouse’s twentieth season is focused on the issue of class, which is of course central here as well.)
Wharton’s heroine, the doomed Lily Bart, is trapped at what proves to be a catastrophic intersection of class, gender, and brains: too poor to live the life to which she was raised to aspire without a rich husband; too honest to think herself capable of being happy in a life of less privilege; not quite heartless enough to marry, simply for his money, a man she cannot like or respect; and neither skilled nor gumptious enough to move, like her earnest friend Gerty Farish, to a garret and support herself in one of the few ways open to her as a single woman. Happiness costs, and the only coin she has to pay with is her company, so she walks, constantly, a series of very fine lines in the social fabric: between being a friend, being a servant, and being a charity case; between being a prettily suitable companion for her friends’ husbands and being a threat to those friends’ marriages; between being a social asset and a social liability for those friends themselves; between being a gorgeous, witty eligible bachelorette and being a desperate, poor old maid.
The only man Lily really trusts, Lawrence Selden, also has a somewhat equivocal position in society. Selden, the recently thrown-over companion of Bertha Dorset, one of Lily’s married friends (Bertha’s moved on to an even younger catch, Ned Silverton, whose puppyish love for her is easier to handle than Lawrence), is a lawyer: smart, witty, but not really able to play, financially, at the level of the bankers and aristocrats and nouveaux riches who form their social circle. And for Lily, Selden also has the nasty habit of assuming the worst possible interpretations of her actions. Lily’s true motives are generally mixed (a portion of self-serving canniness, to be sure, but also genuine compassion and care for her friends, and not nearly enough cynicism toward their motives; Amanda Jones nicely conveys the combination of worldliness, forced optimism, and pockets of surprising naivete). Yet Selden seems unable to give her the benefit of the doubt, judging her for presumed sexual dalliances (hypocritically, since he’s had at least one of his own).
Fitch and Wharton’s script cleverly compresses and cajoles the novel’s action into four single days, dotted across a year and a half, also paring the characters down to a manageable number. It begins at a fall house party at the Trenors’ country estate where Lily (there as a guest, but also sort of a social secretary/assistant to the hostess) almost becomes engaged to Percy Gryce, a fantastically wealthy but fantastically boring fellow, but hesitates at a crucial moment and instead sees him pursue Evie Van Osburgh. In financial straits, Lily accepts money from Gus Trenor; she thinks it’s an advance on an investment he’s promising to make with her limited savings, while Trenor has other expectations of how he will be repaid. At a charity ball a month later, Lily begins to realize the trouble she may be in with Trenor, and also with his business partner, Simon Rosedale, whom she has frequently snubbed. (Rosedale is a bit of a problem, a character who to modern eyes skates far too close to anti-Semitic caricature for comfort; his feelings for Lily may be genuine but there’s an unpleasant oiliness about him. Peter Tedeschi does his best to find authentic humor in Rosedale’s early appearances, and gives his final offer for Lily genuine tenderness, which softens the character helpfully.)
She flees abroad as a guest (well, again, part guest, part assistant) of the Dorsets, and at a dinner party on the deck of a Mediterranean yacht, her world truly begins to crumble. Finally, exiled from her society friends and forced to find a living, she goes from lady’s companion to milliner’s assistant, and the play’s final scene takes place in the back room of the shop that is about to fire her. Lily’s downfall is complete: from being a glittering adornment to any gathering, with marriage prospects still arrayed before her, to an object of slight suspicion but still the belle of the ball, to a burning threat and outcast, to a charity case, pitied or despised by all. Yet she has one tool that might rescue her—but using it would require her to compromise others. Will her integrity allow her to do so?
Both the script and the acting can tend to be a little over-mannered, even a little too arch; even the most emotional disclosures and cruelest insults are delivered coolly and without evident passion. Even so, Lily’s fate is terribly sad, and the ending terribly moving.
Director Alex Roe has underscored the piece with a soundtrack of rainfall, and a between-scenes panorama of people fleeing to get out of the rain that seems to echo both Lily’s circumstances and the piece’s undercurrent of fear and anxiety about money and status. While some of the gender issues showcased here have, thankfully, evolved, its financial concerns feel sadly relevant. In these perilous economic times, the sheer terror of failing to succeed and having no resources to fall back on hits all too close to home.