Sophistication, wit and a vivid leading female character are front and center in S.N. Behrman’s Biography. Thank you, American Century Theater for finding this forgotten gem.
If you like your theatre smart and your characters fascinating, Biography is absolutely worth a look. This is high style, handsomely done.
It’s 1931, and we find the same echelon of people that you would find in a Fred Astaire film or the “Thin Man” series, where even down on their luck people dress with elegance and style. They speak that way, too, thanks to Behrman’s sparkling dialogue, as when the leading lady questions her former beau’s career aspiration with “Do you want to be a senator, or can’t you help it?”
Along with several gentleman callers, the audience enters the world of the portrait artist and femme supréme, Marion Froude. Marion escaped her small town Southern roots and embraced the world, in every way possible. After her mercurial adventures abroad, she has settled in a New York City apartment with no prospects for new commissions and very little money.
Behrman imbued Marion with a kaleidoscope of colors and shades, so there is more to her than promiscuity and a laissez-faire attitude. She is also sensitive, loyal, persuasive, sensual, and altogether fascinating. I would think an actress would trade in her grandmother to play such a role.
At American Century, Jennifer J. Hopkins doesn’t have to disturb her grandmother at all; she just needs to keep doing what she is doing. Marion’s wanderlust, joie de vivre, and considerable charms are made tangible in Hopkins’ adept portrayal. She is also blessed with a distinctive and expressive voice – sometimes a cello, sometimes a purring feline – that beguiles the listener from her very first entrance. You believe that she could have painted portraits of notable men and they would have welcomed more intimate encounters. We learn that indeed she has and they do, and, thanks to a maverick journalist, she has the chance to write a tell-all memoir that will catalog her adventures and conquests and pay her the handsome sum of $2,000 in advance. (It’s 1931, remember.)
This crucial business proposition is brought to Marion by the young radical journalist Richard Kurt. Practically a left-wing fanatic, Kurt, “with a K,” wants to make money on Ms. Froude’s biography while exposing the excesses of her conquests. Daniel Corey brings a single-minded intensity to the role but he also allows for a softer side to slowly emerge as Marion’s charms wear him down.
Worlds collide just as Marion is about to begin her book when old flame Leander Nolan re-enters her life. Leander, known by Marion as “Bunny” in their romantic days, plans to run for the U.S. senate and represent Tennessee, their home state. Looking like Jimmy Stewart and sounding like Leslie Howard in “Gone with the Wind,” Jon Townson exudes Southern manners and gentility that thinly masks both respect for his old friend and contempt for Marion’s lifestyle.
The plot doesn’t stretch too far, at this point: Nolan is worried that his part in Marion’s memoirs will ruin his chances with the “country people” back home; she has to decide if the money is worth writing the book and exposing her delicate life of excess. The premise is simple, but Behrman keeps the story interesting through changing relationships and nuanced characters.
The playwright’s skill at constructing interesting characters extends to the other people in Marion’s life. Marion’s old friend from Europe, Melchior Feydak (properly understated Craig Miller) is a Viennese composer of subdued wit and calm devotion. Minnie, the efficient and faithful German maid (a solid Cam Magee) is Marion’s right hand and heavily accented voice of truth. Frank Britton also impresses as fading Hollywood star Warwick Wilson, who hopes to have his picture painted by Marion and be included in her biography to help his sagging film career.
Rounding out the characters are Orrin and Slade Kinnicott, who appear in the third act, but help take the ending of the play to a surprising conclusion that will not be spoiled here. Orrin is the crass and filthy rich Tennessee businessman and exercise fetishist who is Nolan’s backer in his bid for senate. Slade, Orrin’s daughter and Bunny’s attractive fiancé, is no Southern belle of a trophy wife. Slade is smart as a whip and more independent than her daddy would like her to be.
Veteran actor Joe Cronin comes close to stealing his scenes as Orrin, and Caitlyn Conley makes an impressive American Century debut as Slade.
Closes June 29, 2013
American Century Theater
at Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
2 hours , 55 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Scenic painter Annalisa Dias-Mandoly and designer Roberto Gato Echnique transformed the Gunston II theatre space into Marion’s artistically rendered painter’s loft, complete with floating walls and artwork. Jason Aufdem-Brinke provided well-balanced and subtle lighting for the environmental staging. Providing sartorial splendor and a winning wardrobe, Alison Samantha Johnson’s costume designs were executed with panache and period detail.
The American Century Theater is to be commended for continuing to mine worthy plays of the 20th century, from the popular to the obscure. (Example: their upcoming season includes Neil Simon’s early Come Blow Your Horn and Arthur Kopit’s ‘pseudotragical tragifarce’ Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.)
The venerable critic Brooks Atkinson said in his original review of Biography (New York Times, December 13, 1932) , “Mr. Behrman can write comedies that shine with the truth of character.” Atkinson’s assessment is certainly accurate at American Century Theater.
S. N. Behrman and his vivid characters in Biography deserve to be rediscovered and you can do just that through June 29th.
Biography by S. N. Behrman . Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola . Featuring Jennifer J. Hopkins, Daniel Corey, Jon Townson, Frank Britton, Caitlyn Conley, Joe Cronin, Cam McGee and Craig Miller . Set design: Robert Gato Echanique . Props Designer: Lindsey E. Moore . Scenic Artist: Annalisa Dias-Mandoly . Vocal coach: Karin Rosnizeck . Lighting design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Costume design: Alison Samantha Johnson . Sound design: Ed Moser . Master carpenter: Jonathan Hudspeth . Stage manager: Tre Wheeler . Assistant stage mamber: Charles Lasky . Produced by The American Century Theater . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.