It takes a keen eye (and smart dramaturgs) to pick through the ragbag of forgotten plays for those odd treasures that genuinely deserve a fresh airing. The rag-pickers at the Mint know their stuff, and this revival of Rachel Crothers’ 1937 social comedy “Susan and God” is a bright note on which to conclude a strong season devoted to neglected plays by American women. But enough back-patting. There’s a lot more to this play than meets the eye in this handsomely mounted but superficial production. As helmed by Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, show pushes for laughs without acknowledging the subtlety of Crothers’ humorous sendup of the hypocrisy of her social class.
It’s easy enough to see how this sly satire might be taken as a frothy comedy of manners. Set in a world of elegance and ease as yet untroubled by the wars abroad, the play takes aim at Susan Trexel (Leslie Hendrix), a pampered socialite who returns home to Connecticut with her head full of fashionable nonsense she picked up on a trip to Europe.
Susan, it seems, has been exposed to the Oxford Group, a trendy spiritual movement of the day whose leaders preach a feel-good philosophy of “world-changing through self-changing,” accomplished by throwing “house parties” that play out as confessional orgies. Fancying herself an American evangelist for the movement, this charming airhead proceeds to preach its undigested doctrines of honesty, purity and unselfish love to her own smart social set.
The joke, of course, is that Susan is the most selfish person in the world. Without a thought for her miserable husband, Barrie (Timothy Deenihan), and neglected daughter, Blossom (Jennifer Blood), she swoops down on a friend’s country home, adorned in the latest Paris frock and silly hat, and promptly mows down the assembled crowd with her religious fervor.
Given the obvious constraints of operating on a shoestring budget, the creatives do a nice job of suggesting the elegant social world in which Susan travels. Satin bed linen, pretty wicker furniture and someone playing Cole Porter on the baby grand are all it takes to set the stage for a weekend house party in the Connecticut countryside. The diaphanous summer dresses supplied by Clint Ramos are wonderfully flattering to the female figure; it’s a shame the same sense of period style wasn’t extended to the unstructured hairstyles.
As Crothers describes her, Susan is “a woman with so much charm that it covers most of her faults, most of the time, for most people.” Exerting that sparkling charisma, she badgers Irene (Opal Alladin) and Michael (Al Sapienza) into renouncing their adulterous relationship and bullies Clyde (Alex Cranmer) into admitting his love for Leonora (Jordan Simmons), who is inconveniently married to Stubbie (Anthony Newfield). In her zeal for truth-telling, she even forces her dear friend Charlotte (Katie Firth) to acknowledge her hopeless passion for Barrie.
What Susan doesn’t count on, though, is that her own alcoholic husband will prove to be her most ardent convert, promising to renounce the bottle and shape up — if Susan will stop gadding about and assume her duties as a wife and mother.
Crothers is a master of the well-made play (her scene structure is flawless, her curtain lines priceless), and there is a certain pleasure to be had just following her skillful manipulation of the formal craft elements. Nevertheless, this play turns entirely upon the character of Susan and the actress who plays her.
Because Susan is such a mercurial character, she can be many and all things — silly, selfish, bossy, annoying and, in the end, earnest and honest. But she absolutely must be enchanting. So the unkindest thing that can be said about Hendrix is that she is not enchanting.
The tall, willowy thesp wears Susan’s chic clothes well, but she is no more comfortable in her character than she is in the god-awful haystack wig someone stuck on her head. Pursing her lips, she thrusts herself into the role with grand gestures and declamatory line readings, an attack that aims for Kate Hepburn airy but comes off Joan Crawford scary: When a character says, “You terrify me,” one is inclined to take it literally. (Crawford starred in the 1940 film version directed by George Cukor.)
Everyone else in the cast seems to be taking their cue from a side of Susan that never manifests itself in this production — not the flighty creature “prattling brilliantly, entertainingly and ceaselessly about God,” as a program note says, but the woman who sincerely believes that spiritual cleansing may, indeed, heal a “poor, sick, unhappy world.”
Although none of Susan’s friends convince us that they are both amused and touched by her clumsy campaign to reform them, Firth’s Charlotte manages to laugh and look thoughtful at the same time. Everyone else seems to choose one attitude to the exclusion of the other, with Deenihan’s Barrie tipping over the edge into tragic misery.
Only Susan’s daughter remains oblivious to the phony display of emotion. In the refreshing innocence of Blood’s performance, she, at least, achieves that radiant state of grace that Susan can only pray for.