While New York shivered and Los Angeles shook, Irene Worth took over the Public Theater’s intimate Shiva Theater for an aptly intimate tour through the memoirs of Edith Wharton, seasoned throughout with fragments from the novels. If “Irene Worth’s Portrait of Edith Wharton” were a restaurant, Michelin would rate it worth a side trip.
Wharton, of course, is enjoying a vogue started by Martin Scorsese’s film “The Age of Innocence”; a few blocks east of the Public, the New York Art Theater Institute is presenting an adaptation of “Old New York.” Worth, elegant in a 1924 floor-length champagne Fortuny gown (a gift from Lillian Gish) and standing at a lectern on Ben Edwards’ simple set (palm fronds, Oriental rug, backdrop of book-lined shelves, carefully and unobtrusively lighted by Pat Dignan) makes an engaging substitute for the author.
For 80 minutes, the actress reads judiciously extracted snippets detailing Wharton’s girlhood (“a soft, anonymous morsel of humanity”); her coming to think of herself as a storyteller; her difficult marriage; good times with the likes of Henry James at her beloved Berkshire retreat, the Mount; her hard-won celebrity as a daring social observer (“In New York I was considered too intelligent to be fashionable, but in Boston, I was considered too fashionable to be intelligent”).
Less a performance than a merging of near-regal sensibilities, Worth allows herself one unforgettable moment near the end, reading Wharton’s heartbreaking letter cutting off a relationship with a lover.
Suddenly her face — those wine-sack cheeks curving mischievously up toward sparkling eyes, that deeply lined, often pursed upper lip — fleetingly dissolves in a mask of sorrow and depthless disappointment.
It’s a rich moment in an encounter that makes up in quiet suggestiveness what it abjures in razzle-dazzle.