nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 22, 2007
Somehow, in 30-odd years of reading and seeing plays, I never came across S.N. Behrman's Biography. Do not make the same mistake. This delightful, giddy, smart comedy is currently being mounted beautifully by Pearl Theatre Company. It's a breath of fresh air in a spring that's been slow to start; and even though it's a 75-year-old breath of fresh air, it's not only welcome, but necessary.
The heroine of Biography is Marion Froude, a woman of about 40 who has been living a free-spirited, Bohemian life as an artist and friend (and perhaps more?) to the great and near-great for quite a while now. On the November afternoon when the play begins, Marion receives three unexpected visitors, all of whom will alter her life's immediate course before the play is ended. The first is her dear friend Melchior Feydak, a European composer. He's in New York en route to Hollywood, where a movie contract awaits; it's implied that he's fleeing the looming Nazi menace.
The second is Leander Nolan, a very old friend; indeed, it was Bunny (as she playfully calls him) who was Marion's first love, long ago in Tennessee. Marion has left those Southern roots behind her, but Nolan has cultivated his, and he's now planning to run for the U.S. Senate and to marry the daughter of a powerful newspaper magnate named Kinnicott.
The third—who actually had an appointment, but Marion's not the type to remember appointments—is an earnest young man called Richard Kurt, who has a proposition for our heroine. He is the editor of a magazine called "Every Week" and he wants to serialize Marion's memoirs. He thinks that her unconventional and potentially racy life story will sell. Marion, initially put off by the idea, decides writing her biography will be a worthy challenge. But—and you saw this coming—Leander/Bunny is aghast. He can't afford to appear in a book such as the one Marion will write. Complications ensue.
Interestingly—and this is one of the great strengths of this play—the complications never get terribly complicated. Biography is essentially a screwball comedy, but it's a screwball comedy of ideas. Plot matters less to Behrman than content, and he covers a great deal of ground in this piece, giving both of Marion's "suitors" equal time, and also giving Marion plenty of room to be as heroic as we know she is. For example, here's what she says to Bunny when he asks her not to continue with her biography:
MARION: Bunny darling, it's true that Dickie's magazine isn't the Edinburgh Review. On the other hand your assumption that my story will be vulgar and sensational is a little gratuitous, isn't it?
NOLAN: You refuse then?
MARION: Yes. This—censorship before publication seems to me, shall we say, unfair. It is—even in an old friend—dictatorial.
And here she is, going head-to-head with babbitty Kinnicott:
KINNICOTT: I haven't changed my ideas in twenty-five years.
MARION: Haven't you really? How very steadfast. Now if the world were equally changeless, how consistent that would make you.
Marion is a grand character, Auntie Mame with authentic heart and humanity, and Carolyn McCormick (Dr. Olivet from Law & Order) embodies her spectacularly in this production. She's chic, she's sophisticated, she's smart, she's loving, and she's dazzlingly self-aware. The ending, which I won't give away, is both surprising and wondrously affirming.
Behrman populates the play with a number of eccentric characters who would feel right at home in a Kaufman & Hart comedy of the same period. In addition to the charming Feydak, we meet a Barrymore-esque matinee idol named Warwick Wilson, the impossibly stuffy and pompous Kinnicott (and his unexpectedly modern daughter), and Marion's brusque Teutonic maid, Minnie. The scene with Wilson is nonstop hilarious, as is Marion's battle with Kinnicott, which brings to mind the great denouement of Auntie Mame but was written two decades earlier.
The ensemble is terrific. Sean McNall captures all the contradictions of young Mr. Kurt, while Tom Galantich nails the not-quite-corrupted politico Nolan. George McDaniel is funny as the overbearing Kinnicott, Kyra Miller makes a strong impression as his daughter, and Fletcher McTaggart is delightful as the egotistical actor Wilson. Pearl stalwarts Dominic Cuskern and Carol Schultz are outstanding as Feydak and Minnie; Schultz has some particularly hilarious business mooning over the handsome Mr. Wilson.
J.R. Sullivan has staged Biography with an excellent sense of period and a clear-eyed view of what's on Behrman's mind. The piece and its sentiments prove timeless, though perhaps in one sense also hopelessly dated: throughout, everyone in the story is unfailingly polite to everyone else, even those whose points of view they adamantly despise. The world isn't like that anymore. There's one lesson we should all pay attention to. See the play and discover many more.