Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel “The Enchanted April” has been dramatized a number of times, most recently via a 1991 British TV version starring Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright, which was given a theatrical release in the U.S. In 1925 an adaptation by Kane Campbell ran for 32 performances on Broadway and was turned into a 66-minute black-and-white film in 1935 that did nothing for Ann Harding’s faltering career.
Now Los Angeles advertising writer Matthew Barber has launched himself as a playwright with a new stage adaptation premiering at Hartford Stage Co. The result is decidedly mixed, though it’s certainly given set designer Tony Straiges and costume designer Jess Goldstein a chance to shine.
The plot of the novel is that much-used chestnut about the repressed Anglo-Saxon woman who suddenly blossoms when exposed to the warmth and beauty of Italy (see “Shirley Valentine” and “The Time of the Cuckoo”). The basic problem is making the transformation believable, and here Barber hasn’t succeeded.
His major mistake is giving his entire first act to the drab London lives of his two leading characters, Lotty Wilton (Isabel Keating) and Rose Arnott (Enid Graham), whose marriages have badly deteriorated. This simply leaves too little time in act two for the major changes that must take place in the hearts of the characters. It’s particularly hard to believe that Jill Tanner’s old-guard battle-ax Mrs. Graves would instantly switch to the benign smiling presence she becomes at one point. A shorter London prologue would have sufficed to establish the bleakness of Rose and Lotty’s lives, leaving more time for Italy.
This would also provide a longer look at Straiges’ act two set, a gorgeous terrace of an Italian villa pulsating with sunlight from lighting designer Rui Rita, and crowded with orange trees, cyclamen and orchids. The exterior wall is painted with huge full-blown roses. The set deserves the applause it gets, and Goldstein adds to the visual splendor with costumes that are both in period and in character. Lady Caroline (Stephanie March), a society beauty, looks as though she shops in Paris, whereas the other Englishwomen clearly buy their clothes closer to home. The men’s suits are impeccably tailored.
Alas, the cut of the play is not sure. The playwright and the director seem to be unclear about whether they’re staging a comedy or a farce. Several laughs are bought cheaply, notably when Lotty hurls herself bodily at her husband (John Hines) when he arrives at the villa at her invitation, and when he rushes onstage in nothing but a towel after the bathroom water heater explodes. Cliched Italian shtick is laid on thickly, notably in the shenanigans of the aging cook-housekeeper (Irma St. Paul). There are also moments when the play comes perilously close to segueing into Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” particularly in the scene at the front of the terrace between Lady Caroline and Rose’s husband (Christopher Donahue), who have apparently been lovers.
On the whole the performances are quite good, given how little reason for the characters’ behavior is built into the script. But there’s nothing much going for, or going on in, this “Enchanted April,” apart from its lovely sets and costumes.