TAKEN IN MARRIAGE
Since I'd just survived the wedding ritual myself (May 22, Bond Chapel, reception followed) I was told I was uniquely qualified to comment on Thomas Babe's 1979 comedy currently playing at Touchstone Theatre. But the fact is, Babe's play is so flawed you don't have to have just suckered someone into marrying you to see what's wrong with it.
To begin with, Babe has a lousy sense of style. Actually, he has a great sense of other, better writers' styles and proves it by filling his play with dialogue that feels like it's been lifted. Sometimes he sounds like Noel Coward: "I wouldn't want to be a man for all the tea in China. It's too hard to be a man. And so few do it well." Sometimes he sounds like Edward Albee: "Is the late Mr. C. going to be topic A?" Sometimes he even sounds like one of those dreadful middlebrow American playwrights (Frank Gilroy, etc) whose lead-footed dramas, full of long, meaningful pauses and characters prone to sudden self-revelation were staple Hallmark Hall of Fame specials when I was growing up. "You had so many men," the maiden aunt tells the mother of the bride in the first act. "You were the most attractive of the sisters." In Touchstone's production this scene is played with such gassy seriousness you can almost see the TV camera solemnly moving in for one last close-up before we fade to a commercial.
The one writer Babe never sounds like is Babe. Which is to say he never found the one right, natural story-telling voice that separates real artists from the poseurs, dabblers, and trust-funded amateurs. Naturally his story suffers. Set in an American Legion or VFW hall that's decked out for a wedding reception, the play concerns five women--the bride, her sister, her mother, her maiden aunt, and a daffy, free-spirited guest--thrown together when it looks like the ceremony's off. In true Chekhovian style nothing much happens. For two whole acts we watch these women bicker, bitch, joke, fight, and dance--which would be OK if Babe had Chekhov's gift for creating original characters.
Unfortunately, Babe's characters, none of whom talks or acts like anyone I've ever met, all seem to have come from the storehouse of used theater ideas. Annie is a standard bride: sweet, young, and nervous as hell. Her mother is a stock tough old rich bitch. And the eccentric but wise wedding guest feels like a convenient device created to keep the play moving and to guarantee that even the deferential bride speaks her mind.
In bringing this play to the stage Ina Marlowe does a lot better than you'd expect, thanks in no small part to her fine cast. At the center of the production is a charming actress named Amy Warren, whose portrayal of the bride-to-be is free of easy cliches. Every inch the shy, nervous young bride, Warren continually surprises us with the rightness of her moves and gestures. Even when Babe's script feels most artificial, Warren maintains the three-dimensionality of her character.
That feat is almost matched by Melinda Moonahan's performance as Aunt Helen, no stock tired spinster or bitter closet case, but a vital and interesting woman who just happened not to marry. Moonahan might well have stolen the show from Warren if not for a rather long and dull sequence in which Babe has her and the mother of the bride indulge in some rather flat-footed attempts at high dramatics. Certainly Moonahan comes close in the second act, when Helen gets to talk about the "family secret," her longtime aviatrix lover.
Though she can't hold a candle to Warren and Moonahan, LaDonna Tittle manages to add a dash of dignity and a jigger of wisdom to her character, the unbelievably nosy wedding guest Dixie Avalon. One of those characters who exist only in plays, Dixie is the sort of ditz who lives completely in a world of her own yet knows exactly what everyone else should be doing with their lives. It's a tribute to Tittle's acting ability that she's as believable as she is.
Warren, Moonahan, and Tittle certainly deserve credit for the two most successful scenes in the play: a moving moment in which Aunt Helen discusses the great love of her life and a charming dance sequence in which Dixie and the bride-to-be tap-dance while they discuss the ins and outs of marrying a schmuck who thinks nothing of having an affair with the bride-to-be's sister. Watching this otherwise dead-in-the-water play take off during these scenes made me yearn for a play worthy of these powerful actresses.