“I’m 50,” explained Jack Donaghy on a recent “30 Rock.” “To put it in perspective, that’s like 32 for ladies.” The mating game has changed considerably since 1934, and silver foxes with trophy wives half their age have become almost commonplace. That makes the dilemma of Samson Raphaelson’s “Accent on Youth” — a sophisticated 53-year-old playwright dithering over romance with his 26-year-old secretary — somewhat obsolete. Daniel Sullivan’s spiffy production and David Hyde Pierce’s effortless timing make the antiquated comedy tick by painlessly enough, but there’s not much substance beneath its mild charms.
New Yorker Raphaelson chalked up some enduring screenwriting credits, notably multiple films with Ernst Lubitsch, including “Trouble in Paradise,” “The Shop Around the Corner” and “Heaven Can Wait,” as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” He also penned the original short story and play that became pioneering talkie “The Jazz Singer.” But while “Accent on Youth” spawned three screen adaptations — under its original title in 1935, as “Mr. Music” in 1950 and as “But Not for Me” in 1959 — Raphaelson’s plays now stay mostly on the shelf.
Sullivan’s breezy staging of the first act, with its amusing dialogue and affectionate observation of quintessential theater types, makes you wonder why this contorted May-December romance doesn’t turn up more often on the regional theater docket. But the strained plotting and longueurs of the second act, in which art imitates life and vice versa, make that absence clearer. Ditto the play’s half-hearted bid to uncover a melancholy note in the trials of mid-life love. “You can’t warm over cold mutton,” says youthful secretary-turned-muse Linda (Mary Catherine Garrison). She’s got a point.
After 19 hit comedies, Steven Gaye (Pierce) is trying his hand at tragedy with the bluntly titled “Old Love.” But something about the story’s convention-defying romance doesn’t ring true, so when a former flame (Rosie Benton) gets rekindled, he prepares to abandon the play and flit with her to Europe. “For the first time in my life, I’ve stopped being a playwright,” he says. “I’m a man, that’s what I am.” But when he gives notice to demure Linda, her declaration of long-suffering love provides the key to dignifying Steven’s play with emotional truth.
Fast-forward seven months. The play has had a six-month Broadway run and is about to tour, with Linda as the love interest of a rejuvenated married man played by 60ish Frank Galloway (Byron Jennings). In an offstage ripple effect, Frank has created a new romantic type, drawing a string of ardent young female admirers, while even Steven’s butler (Charles Kimbrough) is getting amorous with a 23-year-old maid. But just as Steven and Linda prepare to go public with their own cross-generational romance, the play’s young leading man, Dickie Reynolds (David Furr), complicates things by falling hard for Linda. Uncertain of his own claim on her, Steven scripts a seduction scene for Dickie as a test.
Garrison is touching in Linda’s big act-one speech, exposing the wounds of dutiful service to a man she loves who has ruined her chances of ever loving anyone else. But she’s at sea trying to keep track of the impulsive character’s wild inconsistencies. In less demanding roles, the other actors fare better, particularly the tirelessly chipper Kimbrough, who exudes period-appropriate class and correctness, and Lisa Banes in a small part as a cajoling actress.
However, it’s Pierce who holds things more or less together. In his first nonmusical Broadway role since “The Heidi Chronicles” almost 20 years ago, the actor’s sitcom experience shows in his throwaway ease with a choice line. He strikes a delightful balance of suave affability and vanity with a hint of rueful self-reflection, playfully coaxing laughs from Steven’s penchant for channeling his writing craft into real life.
Manhattan Theater Club serves up an attractive souffle in John Lee Beatty’s handsomely upholstered, wood-paneled single set (the sitting room/office of Steven’s Manhattan duplex) and Jane Greenwood’s typically stylish 1930s costumes. But in a season uncommonly stuffed with fresh, illuminating revivals of far more interesting works, this quaint subscription-lineup filler seems sure to slip by unnoticed.