Accent on Youth
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 1, 2009
You know how sometimes you're flipping channels on the TV and you come across some old movie from the 1930s that you've never heard of, but you know everyone in it? So you watch it and discover it's nothing profound, in terms of thematic substance, but that it's perfectly enjoyable as vehicle for its leading players and the well-chilled quips of its author. Well, Manhattan Theatre Club's new revival of Samson Raphaelson's 1934 comedy Accent on Youth is a lot like that. The story is nothing new, but it still proves to be a charming time capsule-like diversion that showcases the dry, comic skills of its cast in a flattering light.
Steven Gaye is a successful, middle-aged Broadway playwright who's become hyper-aware of his encroaching mortality ("I'm 51. I can smell 60," he remarks matter-of-factly at one point). His newest play, "Old Love"—about a May-December romance between a young woman and a much older man—is in pre-production but, after 19 hits in a row, he has some doubts about it. The central romance he's cooked up doesn't quite seem plausible to Steven. But when he gets embroiled in a May-December romance of his own—with Linda, his much younger secretary, no less!—Steven finds the necessary real-life inspiration for his play. Ah, but if only life were that simple! After improbably casting Linda as the lead in his play (which, of course, is a hit), Steven finds himself up against the proverbial wall when her far more age-appropriate castmate, Dickie, comes-a-courtin'. Will Linda choose carefree youth or measured experience?
The answers are not so simple for anyone but, since this is a comedy, they're arrived at with a modicum of flair and wit. Raphaelson, a screenwriter whose credits include Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and the Ernst Lubitsch comedies Trouble in Paradise and The Shop around the Corner, knows his way around plot progression and a catchy turn-of-phrase, as well as the well-heeled universe his characters inhabit. But, beneath Accent on Youth's 1930s glamour and sophistication, is a soft-spoken melancholy that grounds the play and gives it more substance. Viewed through that lens, Steven's assumption that his age will be trumped by Dickie's youthful vigor seems quite plausible.
But there are plenty of pleasant, harmless laughs to be had, as well. The delicate vanity of show biz folk is gently punctured and numerous variations on just about every joke you've ever heard about getting old are trotted out. Raphaelson features many reliable stock types—like the drunken actor, the dutiful butler, and the sloe-eyed vamp—but manages to steer them clear of yawn-inducing clichés for the most part.
Daniel Sullivan directs with a mild, no-nonsense urgency that gives the actors room to breathe. While peppered with choice bon mots, Accent on Youth is funniest when the skilled cast puts extra spin on everyday phrases like "I don't think so" and "The answer is no." David Hyde Pierce provides impeccable comic timing (not surprising) and sturdy leading man gravitas (quite surprising) in conveying Steven's urbane insecurity. Charles Kimbrough and Byron Jennings are pricelessly endearing as Steven's loyal (and virile) butler, Flogdell, and his boozy leading man, Frank, respectively. As poor overwhelmed Dickie, David Furr brings up the rear serviceably. Mary Catherine Garrison missteps as Linda, however, by making the same Podunk idealism from Act I a part of her Act II transformation into a refined society girl. The result makes her look somewhat immature for the latter half of the play, which may be the point. But that tactic begs the question: what could Steven possibly see in such a childish young lady?
Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Accent on Youth isn't the kind of play to inspire thought-provoking queries. Closer inspection might make it evaporate into thin air. This kind of entertainment is better served by a handsome set (courtesy of John Lee Beatty), lovely costumes (thank you, Jane Greenwood), and talented actors. Manhattan Theatre Club provides all three and whips up a confection that goes down smooth and easy and leaves no guilt in its wake.