Susan Papa, Michael Burke,

Susan Papa, Michael Burke,

Damon K. Sperber

A stripped-down approach to picaresque material won international success for adapter-director Giles Havergal’s “Travels With My Aunt” — even if it glossed over the few darker currents in one of Graham Greene’s more lightweight “entertainments.” Edith Wharton’s 1905 “The House of Mirth,” on the other hand, is a far less anecdotal, more complex literary work, its satire of early 20th century Manhattan high society just the top crust of a deep dish whose tart flavor turns bitter, then deadly. With some modifications, Havergal’s new adaptation for ACT (for which he staged “Travels” in ’97) hews to his earlier hit’s particular stage gimmicks — but this time the results fall far short of grasping an American lit classic’s depth, breadth and final tragic force.

The evening suffers greatly from a miscast lead and some overly broad support turns. However, even ideal casting would only go so far to elevate a text that’s just superficially amusing in its best early going and fails completely to put across the drama of disastrous post-intermission events. Further, script and production never quite capture Wharton’s particular New World (with Old World pretensions) milieu — accents aside, you might understandably mistake this parlor-gossip environ for Austen, Wilde or Shaw’s.

As was frequently the case with those late authors on Scotsman Havergal’s side of the Atlantic, “Mirth” pivots around a heroine whose willfulness and independence run afoul of her upper-class caste’s strict (if somewhat hypocritical) rules for conduct. “Fashioned to adorn and delight,” beauteous Lily Bart (Roxanne Raja) lives in high style amongst NYC’s elite, though her own fortune — depleted by a well-born late mother — is negligible. Given an admitted penchant for the most extravagant “material advantages,” she considers she must maintain her position and lifestyle by marrying someone of suitable wealth.

This goal is abetted by various matchmaking wives in her tony circle. It’s viewed less charitably by Lawrence Selden (J. Paul Boehmer), the lifelong friend who offers true love — but like Lily, his social connections belie a lack of monetary clout.

While musing upon such rich if otherwise unappealing suitors as “milksop” Percy Gryce (Charles Dean) and “that little Jew” Simon Rosedale (Troy West) — a coarse businessman buying his way into privileged, prejudiced society — Lily carelessly inspires excessive devotion from two married men, George Dorset (Dean) and Gus Trenor (Charles Lanyer). The latter proposes he make secret stock investments on her behalf.

Spendthrifty and bridge-debt-plagued, Lily agrees. But this arrangement isn’t as innocent as it seems. It soon seriously compromises Lily’s reputation and her close friendship with Gus’ wife Judy (Domenique Lozano). This leaves the field clear for Dorset’s own venomous spouse Bertha (Julie Eccles) to do her backstabbing worst.

What plays as a mild but entertaining comedy of manners in the first act derails quickly in the second, as Havergal and cast fail to imbue Lily’s freefall with sufficient import or poignance. Disgraced, snubbed, no longer marriageable, reduced to actual employment (then unemployment), she ends up dying in a boarding-house garret a la “Boheme.”

Havergal’s most significant plot revisions occur late, as he engineers a more reconciliatory end for Lily than the novel allowed. But this “House” betrays Wharton in spirit rather than structure — while her narrative skeleton is duly preserved, what’s inside seems hollow. That inability to inhabit the material manifests itself in an overdependence on ensemble-recited correspondence, descriptive passages, and newspaper “society notes” which plug every gap between hurried, underwhelming dramatic scenes. The results dangle awkwardly between literary page and stage life, leaving the characters two-dimensional, the story arc etched but unfelt.

Emotional involvement is most conspicuously negated by Raja. Expressing Lily’s shallow self-interest in ineptly sarcastic, transparently scheming terms, she evinces no charm or feel for the period. In this interp, the character’s eventual repentance carries zero credence; even poverty and illness fail to stir our sympathy. Lily is a fatally flawed figure, to be sure, but Raja makes her dislikeable rather than complex. It doesn’t help that there’s scant warmth or chemistry between her and Boehmer’s neglected “Mr. Right.”

Havergal likewise often pushes the capable support players toward stridency or caricature. Eccles and Maureen McVerry manage best at mining comic inspiration from flattened-out figures, while Lorri Holt (as Lily’s selfless, “dull-faced” aunt) suggests a vulnerability and pathos the production desperately needs more of.

Physically, the staging is pretty yet unevocative, with fast-shifting scenes gaining little definition as they move amongst Kate Edmunds’ pastel-hued curtains and few period furniture pieces. Anna Oliver’s lovely costumes highlight an otherwise sleek but unmemorable design package.

The House of Mirth

(GEARY THEATER; 1,035 SEATS; $ 55 TOP)

Production

SAN FRANCISCO An American Conservatory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Giles Havergal, adapted from the novel by Edith Wharton. Directed by Havergal.

Crew

Set, Kate Edmunds; costumes, Anna Oliver; lighting, Peter Maradudin; music and sound, Garth Hemphill, James Winquist; dramaturg, Paul Walsh; dialect consultant, Deborah Sussel. Artistic director, Carey Perloff. Opened March 29, 2000. Reviewed March 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

With

Lily Bart ..... Roxanne Raja Lawrence Selden ..... J. Paul Boehmer Gerty Farish ..... Lorri Holt Simon Rosedale ..... Troy West Judy Trenor/ Mrs. Penison ..... Domenique Lozano Carry Fisher/ Mrs. Haffen ..... Maureen McVerry Bertha Dorset/ Grace Stepney ..... Julie Eccles George Dorset/ Percy Gryce ..... Charles Dean Gus Trenor/Lawyer ..... Charles Lanyer Servants ..... Linda Jones Nicholson,
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