The 1845 drawing-room comedy hit “Fashion” was written by Anna Cora Mowatt, one of the first female playwrights to achieve success in the American theater. She defied male contempt for femme authors, a species Nathaniel Hawthorne defined at the time as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” Mowatt’s comedy was notable for attacking class consciousness, social climbing and superficial American worship of European traditions. Its messages are still relevant and amusing in a frequently over-the-top but engaging production.
Central to the premise of runaway pretension is Mrs. Tiffany (Barbara Tarbuck), a woman so frantic to be perceived as upper class that she bankrupts her husband (Steve Matt) in pursuit of wealth and status. She forces Southern servant Judd (Eric Stein) to call himself Adolph, mercilessly mangles words (“denouement” becomes “dune-a-ment”) and drives silly daughter Seraphina (Elizabeth Tobias) into an alliance with a stuffy count (Mark Lewis) — in reality, a fortune hunter secretly involved with French maid Millinette (Abby Craden).
Threading their way through innumerable plot twists are 14 period songs, including “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom De-Ay,” “After the Ball” and “The Streets of New York.” These tunes, added by director Ellen Geer to the original text, are put over with sparkling comedic flair, although a few could be cut to move the action along. They serve as a startling indicator of how much popular music has changed.
What hasn’t changed in 160 years is the human need to show off and one-up each other, and Tarbuck’s Mrs. Tiffany (proudly proclaiming herself “one of the upper 10,000”) is both appalling and pathetic in her pursuit of class. She welcomes poet Mr. Twinkle (Octavio Cardenas) but warns her daughters that poets are always poor and not husband material; patronizes brashly down-to-earth farmer Trueman (Thad Geer); and barely tolerates her husband, a businessman being blackmailed by his Uriah Heep-style clerk Snobson (Jeff Bergquist).
As in most farces, there’s a person of substance, and Gertrude (Willow Geer), an independent woman in the Jane Austen mode, supplies that role. Geer has a graceful, refreshing presence that’s utilized too seldom in the first act, and she maintains finesse and poise when the script rushes her into a plot that requires her to save Seraphina by exposing the caddish count. This climactic portion of the story is too extended and frenetically staged, and as an inebriated Snobson, Bergquist goes hog wild, exploding so hysterically that you fear for his safety.
Melora Marshall stands out as a “feminine newspaper,” a busybody who sets her cap for Trueman and stops the show with an uproarious version of “Nobody Coming to Marry Me.” Lewis’ count has a rich repertoire of expressions, like a leading man in a silent movie, and his inspired caricature of bogus royalty reaches its height with “Moustache,” a song of supreme self-infatuation. Cardenas’ Mr. Twinkle elicits laughter when attempting to read his poetry and expressing rage that no one will listen or let him finish.
Geer has wisely cast Shakespearean actor Matt in the role of Mr. Tiffany. He provides dignity and balance as the panic-stricken husband, even remaining in human range when he screams at his wife, “Confound your balls, madam” — a reference to her penchant for parties, but easily taken by the modern spectator as a symbol of her aggression.
Helmer also draws a fine portrayal from Thad Geer, whose picture of a level-headed American repelled by phoniness exudes authority. Although too contempo, his acting has a strength that makes the mass of convoluted, ridiculous resolutions work and even attain some level of believability.
Since fashion relating to clothes and behavior is at the heart of the play, Kim DeShazo’s costumes — featuring an array of gowns with flouncing hoop skirts in a wide variety of fabrics and colors — are a key element. They convincingly evoke the period and the timeless, insatiable lust for upward mobility.