Audiences catch a glimpse of male nudity in "Enchanted April" playing at the Belasco Theate, but it's just a fleeting moment in an otherwise comfortingly harmless comedy. Matthew Barber's adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's novel isn't particularly subtle or graceful, but it provides the kind of pleasures veteran theatergoers may be starved for.

This review was corrected on Apr. 30, 2003.

Audiences who don’t go to Broadway plays expecting to be confronted with a stage full of naked baseball players can find suitable relief and refreshment at the Belasco Theater. Yes, there’s a glimpse of male nudity in “Enchanted April,” but it’s just a fleeting moment in an otherwise comfortingly harmless comedy, the theatrical equivalent of a nice cup of tea sweetened with a generous spoonful of sugar. Matthew Barber’s adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel isn’t particularly subtle or graceful — nor, really, is Michael Wilson’s often clunky production — but it provides the kind of sentimental pleasures veteran theatergoers may be starved for in these uncertain times.

Jayne Atkinson plays Lotty Wilson, a mousy British housewife whose subversive impulses are ignited by a discreet little ad in the Times describing an Italian villa available for let during the month of April. She soon is badgering a new and equally dissatisfied acquaintance, Rose Arnott (Molly Ringwald), into joining her plan to head south to drink in the wisteria and sunshine. Keeping their stuffy husbands in the dark, they recruit the bored “modern,” Lady Caroline Bramble (Dagmara Dominczyk), as well as the self-important dowager Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ashley) to split expenses.

The ladies’ lengthy preparations for their escape are stretched across a first act that tends to plod. It doesn’t help that the budget for Tony Straiges’ sets seems to have been entirely apportioned to the Italian half of the evening, so that for the first hour of the show we stare at a few pieces of furniture arrayed against a black backdrop. The intention, presumably, is to provide a stark contrast with the sunny efflorescence that greets us in act two, but it comes across not so much atmospherically dreary as cheap.

Once they arrive on the sun-drenched Mediterranean shores, these variously repressed, dissatisfied, disapproving and bored women begin to blossom, naturally. You don’t have to be familiar with the source material — or the charming 1991 British film — to chart the various emotional transformations that will take place. But you don’t really have time to, either: If the first act tends to drag, the second rushes by, a whirl of colorful frocks and gay laughter, before stopping rather suddenly, like a carousel somebody pulled the plug on.

Accordingly, the would-be poignant moments of communion and revelation among these disparate women are somewhat abruptly dispatched. They tend to get lost amid the busy convolutions of the plot, not to mention some rather laborious comic shenanigans, one of which finds Michael Cumpsty, as Lotty’s bossy husband, Mellersh, flashing that flesh after a predictable contretemps with a cranky bath.

Rose’s teary confession to Lotty that she lost a child seems to come out of nowhere, for instance, and is brushed aside just as quickly. And Lotty herself, so desperate to escape the constrictions of her marriage in act one, makes an about-face almost as soon as she dips a toe in the soothing waters of the Mediterranean. “We must forgive our husbands, Rose, and ourselves, and get on with things,” she effuses, rather vaguely. Her companions forgive her “idiotically illogical” behavior with an instant benevolence the audience may not be ready to share.

Instead of giving the characters and the relationships among them a chance to breathe — and the actresses who play them a chance to give anything more than superficial performances — Barber and director Wilson have emphasized the more farcical elements of the plot: Mrs. Graves’ waspish wrangling with the Italian maid, Costanza (Patricia Conolly), or the revelation that Rose’s husband, Frederick (Daniel Gerroll), is pursuing an affair with Lady Caroline. Some of the cheaper jokes distort the characterizations, too, as when Mrs. Graves admonishes Lady Caroline for her attraction to men by saying, “My mother unbalanced men, and I dare say it can come at quite a heavy cost,” and Lady Caroline snaps, “Pricey, was she?”

In general, and unexpectedly, the male members of the cast tend to outshine their female counterparts, perhaps because we don’t expect more from their two-dimensional characters. Cumpsty is engaging and funny in his chipper pompousness, and Gerroll nails the oily suavity of Frederick, even if the rapport between Frederick and Rose remains obscure. Michael Hayden, in the underdeveloped role of Antony Wilding, the landlord who rather presumptuously decides to join his tenants for the month, is sincerely sweet and appealing.

Atkinson shines brightest among the distaff ensemble. Clumsy and tentative in the presence of her disapproving husband, whom she can never seem to please, Atkinson’s Lotty becomes a veritable sunbeam in act two, radiating joy in her surroundings. Ringwald is on the stiff side as Rose, overplaying the character’s prim coolness to the point of obscuring any other qualities. Dominczyk’s Lady Caroline is defined more precisely by her shellacked helmet of hair, cigarette holder and silken pantsuits than anything in the writing. Ashley seems to be channeling Edith Evans at times, turning Mrs. Graves into a bargain-basement Lady Bracknell, replete with watered down Wilde-isms.

Just before the play ends, Antony turns to Lady Caroline, the lone available female, and observes, “I’ve been here two days now and I scarcely know a thing about you.” It’s easy to sympathize. Despite a couple of hours in the presence of these women cheerily engaged in self-realization, when the curtain comes down we have hardly come to know them at all.

Enchanted April

Belasco Theater;1,037 seats; $80 top

Production

A Jeffrey Richards, Richard Gross/Ellen Berman, Raymond J. & Pearl Berman Greenwald, Irving Welzer, Libby Adler Mages/Mari Glick, Howard R. Berlin, Jerry Frankel, Terry E. Schnuck, Frederic B. Vogel presentation of a play in two acts by Matthew Barber. Directed by Michael Wilson.

Creative

Sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Rui Rita; music and sound, John G. Romada; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Katherine Lee Boyer. Opened April 29, 2003. Reviewed April 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Lotty Wilton - Jayne Atkinson Rose Arnott - Molly Ringwald Mellersh Wilton - Michael Cumpsty Frederick Arnott - Daniel Gerroll Lady Caroline Bramble - Dagmara Dominczyk Mrs. Graves - Elizabeth Ashley Antony Wilding - Michael Hayden Costanza - Patricia Conolly Servant - John Feltch

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