Matt Charman, playwright, is on the rise. His first play, A Night at the Dogs, which opened at the Soho Theatre in London, won the prestigious Verity Bargate Award for new writers. Richard Eyre directed his The Observer and he’s been produced at the National Theatre in London. He’s won awards in Britain, he’s currently writing a screenplay for Universal/Working Title Film and an original drama for the BBC.
However, he’s new to me, and Regrets, under the auspices of the ever vigilant Manhattan Theatre Club introduces him to the U.S. with a resounding success. I’m sorry that the short bio of Mr. Charman doesn’t go into how and where he picked up such a feel for American, particularly Western American speech patterns and rhythms, not to mention very specific dialogue.
For in Regrets, he’s taken us to a remote camp in Pyramid Lake, Nevada – where men seeking divorce from unhappy marriages must remain for six weeks in order to become citizens of Nevada, thus eligible for immediate divorce from their wives. In this regard, I was put in mind of Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, his 1936 prize winning hit which was set in a gas station/coffee shop in eastern Arizona. It, too, was peopled by characters, three in particular, who move from love to despair. Two are men, one a woman.
In Regrets there are four men and two women, all of whom are tested when one of them, the newest arrival, has his secret past forced upon him when the FBI tracks him down and confronts him. It is 1954 and America was deeply into the McCarthy error. It was a time when many were forced to face “What would I do in similar circumstances?” The newcomer, only 18 years old, has come to this isolated camp to disappear so that his young wife back home, whom he loves, will not be involved in what he suspects will be trouble. How he is received, and how each of the other characters will or won’t respond to his problem is what forms the core of this remarkable play which probes these complicated and interesting men and women.
An amusing thought occurred to me on reflection after seeing the play. Clare Booth Luce’s slick comedy The Women also takes us to a resort catering to Park Avenue ladies getting through their six week sentence inReno in order to free themselves of marital mates back east. A very different lot than these disillusioned and unhappy men, but as Luce’s play is set in the 1930s and Charman’s is set in 1954, it’s clear that marriage remains a tough nut to crack, for men as well as women, and divorce is still alive and well.
Mr. Charman’s remarkable achievement is his ability to dig deeply into these American characters. There’s no indication he’s even been here until now, but in any case all of his work has been in Britain writing British characters with actors working under the very British direction of Peter Eyre and others at the National Theatre. There is great humor in this Nevada camp of his, but American director Carolyn Cantor has provided focus for the various back stories to be clearly presented. The final moments of the play are very moving, as each of these men and women, who’ve known each other merely for weeks, must face a moment of truth for each of them.
As always, Nancy Piccione and staff, have put together a first rate cast, some of whom have populated MTC companies in the past. But in Ansel Elgort, a high school senior at LaGuardia High School, where he’s played leading roles in Hairspray and Guys and Dolls, here proves himself an arresting actor who is playing a difficult role, and his performance is astonishing since his background would seem to be all in song and dance. At 18, one can think of a number of roles in which he would shine, all the way from Bo Decker in Bus Stop to — Hamlet!
But each actor in this ensemble is gifted, and Adriane Lenox as the camp’s manager, Alexis Bledel as a young woman desperate for an anchor for her life and Brian Hutchison, Richard Topol and Lucas Caleb Rooney as the three other camp residents, are all individual and interesting. Rounding out the cast is an equally fine Curt Bouril as the FBI man playing the Deus Ex Machina, the catalist whose entrance into the story stirs things up.
Regrets, a play that questions whether or not courage is contagious, is a winner in all departments.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Regrets is onstage at New York City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
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