How very shrewd of the Atlantic Theater Company to commission a fresh adaptation of “The New York Idea,” Langdon Mitchell’s 1907 comedy of manners about the scandalous mating habits of newly divorced members of the smart set. And how very clever of David Auburn (“Proof”) to pen such a brisk, streamlined treatment of this classic American play, which caused a sensation in its day. But now that it has been properly dusted off, this vintage property invites a more antic comic treatment than the stylistically correct but terribly sober production helmed by Mark Brokaw.
Women may not have been able to vote in 1906, but they could divorce their husbands — a trend that both shocked and titillated New York society at the turn of the 20th century. The playwright captures the period zeitgeist in one well-turned line: “Marry for whim and leave the rest for the divorce court — that’s the New York idea of marriage.”
Cynthia Karslake (Jaime Ray Newman, cutting a nice figure and giving a high-energy performance in her New York debut) is one of those gay divorcees. Having capriciously shed her spouse and joined the “sporty” crowd, this spirited creature has become what one disapproving elder condemns (in a line of dialogue that owes as much to Auburn as it does to Mitchell) as “the uncouth modern female, the gruesome Gibson Girl … an habitue of the race track and the divorce court.”
Ever impetuous, Cynthia is about to marry Philip Philimore (Michael Countryman, solid as a rock), a straitlaced judge whose first wife, Vida, a bohemian hoyden played with exuberant panache by Francesca Faridany, divorced him for being the dullest man on the face of the earth.
With the wedding set for the following day, there’s still time for the playwright to throw up some obstacles to this ill-advised marriage, including the fate of Cynthia’s most prized possessions: her beloved racehorse and a portrait by John Singer Sargent.
The irrepressible Vida, with her flamboyant manner and wanton ways (“You must be a splendid lover,” she tells an admirer) is the very embodiment of the shameless New Woman. And while fun-loving Cynthia doesn’t pose as strong a threat to public morality, she too represents an aspect of modern womanhood that challenges prevailing social mores.
In the true spirit of social comedy, the characters stand their comic ground and never deviate from their well-defined roles, even as the plot complications multiply and confusion reigns.
Meanwhile, a Greek chorus of aged social lions — wittily costumed in high-Victorian mourning dress by Michael Krass and given droll performances by stage veterans Patricia Connolly, Patricia O’Connell, and Peter Maloney — register their dismay at the deterioration of morality and good manners in New York society.
There’s little to fault and much to admire in the stylish physical production. But the satiric impulse that seems slyly amusing in Krass’ highly embellished costumes and Allen Moyer’s overdressed period rooms feels off in performance. Clever lines don’t land. Sight gags don’t register. Light moments feel heavy. And while thesps give technically sound perfs, they seem to be pushing too hard — and forgetting to come up for air. Something was sacrificed for high style and serious intention, and that something was a sense of fun.