First, some well-earned praise: Playwright David Grimm has a real comic gift, and “The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue,” his verse adaptation of Moliere’s little-seen satire “Les Femmes savantes,” proves he has a knack for clever rhymes. What’s more, in its world premiere at Hartford Stage, the play gets an exquisite production as it skewers the hypocrisy of 1930s New York socialites. If it would just stop about halfway through act two, the show could be devoured as a delicious little trifle.
But it doesn’t stop. Like all satirists, Grimm has a moral point to deliver. His play aims to chastise wealthy people who give lip service to causes they don’t comprehend. On his stage, these poseurs divide the classes and kill true love. That’s a definite obstacle, but the comic problem isn’t what’s dubious here.
The stumbling block is Grimm’s harsh solution, though that’s not immediately clear. At first the production conveys tenderness for its central fools, the domineering Phyllis (Annalee Jefferies) and her cohorts.
These ladies want to sound enlightened at any cost, and their earnest devotion to advancing their minds lends sweetness to their most ridiculous outbursts. When Phyllis, for example, demands that a servant be fired for reading tabloids, Jefferies has the skill to blend her operatic rage with innocence. It’s clear the lady believes she’s enlightening the lower-class domestic by berating her intelligence.
This complexity carries to the show’s main action, when Phyllis insists her daughter Betty (Nicole Lowrance) wed huckster poet Upton Gabbitt (David Greenspan). Phyllis and friends are so enamored of this man that they can’t see he’s just conning them to marry into the family, and director Michael Wilson stages their devotion with hilarious precision. At one of Gabbitt’s poetry readings, the nitwit women circle him like Bacchants, repeating his words until they collapse in ecstasy. Again, though, their passion is so pure that they evoke laughter of sympathy more than scorn.
The drawback to their blissful ignorance, of course, is the impact their idiocy has on everyone around them. As beleaguered servant Magda, for instance, Natalie Brown communicates endless resentment from hearing about her “unrefined” life, and Lowrance amusingly twitches with the fear that her mother will have her marry a crook. Though he lets their stories meander, Grimm obviously wants these two to represent the danger — both economic and romantic — that comes when powerful people act on phony ideals.
That said, it’s no surprise when Gabbitt — played with fey, hissing glee by Greenspan — gets his comeuppance. Consider, though, what else gets ejected from the play. To correct their hypocrisy, Grimm has the women renounce their desire to learn.
Ultimately, it’s argued that it wasn’t misguided study but the simple hunger for knowledge that led these women astray. If they had just avoided books and poetry and ideas, we’re told, then no one could have conned them. It’s even suggested the class rift will close when people of all breeding find a common bond in the mindless pleasures of jitterbugging and picture shows.
For those who would protest this conclusion, be warned: The program note declares that Moliere’s original (and, presumably, Grimm’s adaptation) should not be “incorrectly read as misogynistic and anti-intellectual.” Apparently, anyone who has trouble with the play is thinking too hard. And just look where that got those learned ladies.