There are plenty of old-fashioned plays that can still sparkle onstage, but “Old Acquaintance” is probably not high on that list. Despite the handsome upholstery of Michael Wilson’s Broadway revival for Roundabout, John van Druten’s 1940 drawing-room comedy about the long-running friendship/rivalry between two successful authors is mildly diverting but rarely much more. The comic verve of Harriet Harris and the elegance of her co-star and foil, Margaret Colin, make the three acts pass painlessly, but the play’s catfight lacks claws just as its lovefest struggles to summon warmth.
A London-born transplant to the U.S., van Druten was a prolific supplier of light Broadway fodder through the 1940s and early ’50s. But his plays are now better remembered for the film adaptations they spawned, among them “Bell, Book and Candle,” “I Remember Mama” and “I Am a Camera,” which later evolved into “Cabaret.”
In its 1943 screen version, “Old Acquaintance” was an entertaining example of the Warner Bros. women’s pictures of the ’40s, elevated by juicy performances from Bette Davis and an over-the-top Miriam Hopkins. It was remade in 1981 as “Rich and Famous,” a lackluster swansong for director George Cukor, but a minor guilty pleasure rescued from self-serious tedium by Candice Bergen’s campy turn as a Southern author of trashy bestsellers.
Harris provides similar relief here with her precision timing, nonchalantly serving up bitchy backhanders while balancing self-aggrandizing hauteur with tantrum-prone, infantile neediness. But despite the amusing bravado, it’s a one-note characterization, constrained by stale writing.
Kit (Colin) and Milly (Harris) have been best friends since college. Kit is a critics’ darling with a small but highly regarded output of novels that have generated modest sales. She never married, but has had a string of lovers, the latest being Rudd (Corey Stoll), a devoted and personable staffer from her publishing company, 10 years her junior.
Milly churns out one lurid novel a year, which flies off the shelves but earns minimal respect in the literary world. She has a broken marriage behind her and a free-spirited late-teen daughter, Deirdre (Diane Davis), anxious to cut the apron strings.
Van Druten’s principal theme is how while romance and even family ties can disappoint, the bonds of true friendship remain indestructible even between mismatched opposites.
Those bonds are tested by Milly’s consuming envy. Despite being swathed in fur and financial success, she resents Kit’s critical acclaim and is infuriated by her close relationship with the increasingly uncontrollable Deirdre, who looks to Kit as a role model. When Milly learns that ex-husband Preston (a stiff Stephen Bogardus) fell in love with her best friend and wanted to run off with her during a low point in their marriage, she turns on Kit. This creates complications with Rudd, just as Kit is coming around to the idea of marrying him.
Wilson keeps the play motoring along briskly enough, yet the production strains to find its groove, exposing the material’s flimsiness. It’s never quite as much fun as it should be.
That shortcoming is mirrored in Colin’s performance. A poised, intelligent actress who wears David C. Woolard’s classy ’40s wardrobe with style, her Kit is a New York sophisticate with a fabulous Village apartment, a well-stocked liquor cabinet and a tasty young lover drooling over her. But she’s sober and understated to the point of being dull. And the writing only casually explores the pathos of a woman who has drifted from romance to romance without ever finding happiness.
The other problem is Davis’ irritatingly shrill Deirdre, making it hard to fathom why this tiresome girl commands so much attention, let alone prompts Stoll’s effortlessly charming Rudd to redirect his affections.
Designer Alexander Dodge milks the contrast between the two main characters, locating Kit in a chic, book- and tchotchke-lined bohemian garret with a massive window overlooking Washington Square, while Milly takes up residence in an ostentatious Park Avenue sublet, all antiseptic mottled pink walls and white marble.
Harris sweeps through her gilded domain in overdressed splendor, spitting out barbed pleasantries, fishing for compliments or working herself up into outraged hysterics whenever she feels wronged — which is most of the time. Milly answering the phone in the middle of an apoplectic aria is a sublime bit of physical comedy. But the character is basically a self-absorbed sidekick promoted to lead status.
In this production, at least, the play never really gives either woman a chance. It’s hard to invest much in the survival of a friendship when one character is a joyless drag and the other a gauche, tactless monster.