Though skillfully written and constructed, John Van Druten’s 1943 romantic comedy “The Voice of the Turtle” was a vehicle very much tailored to its three original Broadway stars — Margaret Sullavan, Elliott Nugent and Audrey Christie — and it relies heavily on the personal charms and stagecraft of any cast playing it. In its current Westport Country Playhouse outing, it’s both lucky and unlucky. Lucky because its two central players, Katie MacNichol and Stephen Barker Turner, though not stars, are sufficiently deft and likable that it’s a pleasure to spend time with them. Unlucky because director Connie Grappo and actress Sarah Zimmerman have grossly distorted the play’s third character, tough 28-year-old actress Olive, into an unpleasant, self-centered bitch with a buzzsaw voice.
Writing of the original production, which was staged by the playwright, George Jean Nathan pointed out, “Miss Christie was made to avoid any of the acting tricks generally associated with the interpretation of the routine character of the sophisticated actress-friend.” This is exactly what Grappo and Zimmerman don’t do. Fortunately, Olive disappears for a good long time, leaving the bulk of the play to MacNichol and Turner playing a couple whose brief encounter quickly turns into true love.
In 1943, “The Voice of the Turtle” was considered racy because its sweet young heroine was (gasp) not a virgin. In fact, she has had flings with not one but two men, one of them married! Sally is 23, an actress who has yet to have a successful run and who has decided to swear off sex. She’s still an innocent at heart, the type of girl who worries that her radio’s feelings have been hurt when it’s left on in an empty apartment with no one to appreciate it. The play opens with her home alone in her sublet New York apartment, studying and reciting the role of Juliet.
The play’s plot, if it can be called that, is as follows: Olive visits Sally and tells her an old beau, Bill, now in the Army, will be coming to call for her. She then gets what she considers to be a better offer and when Bill arrives gives him the brushoff, leaving him with Sally. He’s 32, the son of a once-wealthy family with Princeton and Europe in his background, and he can quote Milton. Bill and Sally spend the rest of the play overcoming the minor obstacles Van Druten places on the path of true love and, presumably, live happily ever after.
Director Grappo sees the play as a wartime story with urgent-relationship aspects that she believes also have been evident since Sept. 11. But wartime urgency isn’t really an aspect of this love story, and relating the play to Sept. 11 is pushing things a bit far.
Fortunately, MacNichol and Turner present themselves as such a nice young couple, she genuinely sweet and likable, he clean-cut and honest, that the chatty breakfasts and dinners that eventually lead to them sleeping together and declaring their love are enjoyable. At one point Turner’s Bill sets out to make scrambled eggs, breaking them into a bowl and wielding an old-fashioned hand eggbeater. It’s an apt reminder that this is a souffle of a play that must be handled with a light touch. It gets it from MacNichol and Turner, even if they are no Sullavan and Nugent.
Set designer Dean Taucher has supplied a detailed period Manhattan apartment with living room, kitchen and bedroom that even has a Philco refrigerator. Ilona Somogyi has gone a bit overboard with her period costumes, particularly the unfortunate pants suit for Olive’s second, mercifully brief, appearance in a play that is definitely a product of its period.