‘Dew’ drops into London

Glaspell's serio-comedy gets stage revival

Has anyone out there seen “Chains of Dew?” I thought not. To have caught Susan Glaspell’s serio-comic study of bobbed hair and birth control, parochial values and artistic passion, you’d have to be more than 86 years old, given that it was produced just once, in 1922, by the celebrated Provincetown Players of Eugene O’Neill fame. Since then, the unpublished text has languished in the Library of Congress.

Until now.

Kate Saxon‘s sharp production at London’s Orange Tree Theater of this startlingly modern play by a Pulitzer Prize winner gives meaning to the phrase “unjustly neglected.” That term tends to be brazenly slapped upon posters for anything disinterred from beneath the dust of history, but Glaspell’s constantly surprising drama, written in 1919, is the real deal.

Poised somewhere between Ibsen and Shaw, but a good deal funnier than either, the play has the rare virtue of being unguessable.

A year ahead of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” Glaspell uses the shock value of women cutting their hair to symbolize and illustrate the complexities of personal politics and marital relations.

Seymore (David Annen), a conflicted poet and bank manager, is enthralled by and has had an affair with a smart, young New Yorker named Nora (Ruth Everett). She’s a tireless champion of the then incendiary topic of birth control.

Zealous and determined, Nora and a group of fellow travelers are intent upon Seymore forsaking his Midwestern home and values. At which point it seems as if the play is going to be a post-“Doll’s House” confection with a role the young Katharine Hepburn would have killed to play.

But when Nora chases Seymore back to his small(minded) town, the expected comic havoc she wreaks — think sex-changed “The Man Who Came to Dinner” but two decades earlier — has unexpected consequences.

Glaspell’s breadth of compassion allows positions to be unusually three-dimensional. Indeed, the focus shifts from Nora to the fascinating character of Seymore’s wife (a deeply touching Katie McGuinness). And there are pivotal roles for his mother and a haughtily reproving neighbor, played here with delicious aplomb respectively by Helen Ryan and Nancy Crane.

Impassioned debate is fired up by comedy throughout, but the biggest surprise is the tragic ending. Without a doubt, this discovery should be given an American airing as soon as possible.

On the subject of lost and found, Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms” pops up in “Maria Friedman — Rearranged” at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

William Loveday‘s exquisitely intimate arrangement for voice and acoustic guitar lays Friedman’s art bare. It leaves the vocal line so exposed that were she to milk the emotions, everything would curdle. Instead, Friedman holds her audience through restraint, quietly concentrating on the drama and allowing everything out on a relaxed sound. It’s like watching an actor conveying a flow of innermost thoughts in a silent, extended reaction shot.

At the other end of the spectrum, just as Barbra Streisand famously reconceived the innocent “Happy Days Are Here Again” as a litany of bitterness, Friedman seizes David Cullen‘s arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” as if it were a testament to heartbroken defiance.

All the material, from Randy Newman to Stephen Sondheim, has been specifically arranged not just for Friedman but also for a remarkably versatile 11-piece band. In Kate Bush‘s “The Man With the Child in His Eyes,” Caroline Humphris‘ arrangement floats Friedman’s voice in magical suspension against rippling piano ostinato and ethereal woodwind. That may just be the high point in this tangy, extraordinarily diverse cabaret masterclass.

Still on the musical theater front, choreographer Matthew Bourne is seriously busy. His “Edward Scissorhands” will return to Sadler’s Wells at Christmas, and he’ll co-direct and choreograph Cameron Mackintosh‘s revival of “Oliver!” at Drury Lane following the July departure of “The Lord of the Rings.” First up, however, is the newly announced “Dorian Gray,” premiering in August at the Edinburgh Intl. Festival.

Bourne’s dance retelling of Oscar Wilde’s only novel is updated to the hedonism of high fashion. The artist is now a photographer, and the seductive Lord Henry Wotton? An Anna Wintour-like Lady Mary. Sounds like a deliciously decadent cross between “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”

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