It’s tempting to delicately call N.C. State University’s TheaterFest 2002 a triumph in niche marketing. The Saturday evening I was present for Terrence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines, I’ll comfortably wager I was one of only a half-dozen patrons in the audience still enjoying their first half-century on Earth. While the generation gap wasn’t as profoundly lopsided for the opening night of Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, the demographics still noticeably leaned toward what might be termed advanced maturity. All told, they constitute some of the oldest audiences I’ve encountered in my time as a critic.
Still, in their first two outings, it’s unclear that directors Terry Janney and Fred Gorelick have catered to a given demographic so much as they’ve attempted to tap into two contrasting views on a world at war. Nine months after Sept. 11, the country still has difficulty with the concept of wartime comedy. But given time and necessity, trendy analogues to those light-hearted service comedies of the ’40s and ’50s will, for better or worse, emerge. Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, our sophisticated era’s answer to Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello, will inevitably headline at your local cineplex as two crazy, wacky special forces operatives. For his part, Jerry Seinfeld will only fulfill his destiny when he becomes the next generation’s Bob Hope.
Until then, however, we have Terrence Rattigan’s 1944 comedy While the Sun Shines, a brittle little reminder that, even after the London Blitz, effete naval officer washouts still knew how to have a good time and get the girl to boot. As Bobby, the effete washout in question, Eric Corley affects something of a Terry-Thomas take, but with a substantially less steady accent, while Michael Winters contrasts as American lieutenant Joe Mulvaney. Margaret-Ellen Jeffreys does an interesting turn as a snockered Lady Elizabeth, while Tracey Phillips plays trash with flash as the hedonistic Mabel Crum.
When Bobby tries to set Joe up with a date, identities get crossed, liquor is plied and moves are predictably made on the wrong women in what boils down to a sex farce without the sex. But the conveniently distant war lingers as an unsettling background to that time, and, by association, to this one. In the final analysis, the brittleness may not reside so much in Brattigan’s script or Janney’s workmanlike direction. It’s in the audience. It’s in the world.
If anything, such a dynamic only aids Hellman’s 1940 drama Watch on the Rhine. As in the present situation, a war has found its way home, in this case to the Northern Virginia estate of the Farrelly family, whose members do not know how to deal with the war’s partisans when they show up at their doorstep. Of course, Patricia Caple handily plays Fanny, the imperious matriarch whose affected boorish bluster will not shield her or her loved ones from the coming storm. As her daughter Sara, married with children and a German refugee, a strong Dorothy Recasner Brown delivers the second in a late series of finely nuanced, rock-solid performances as a prodigal daughter in dire need of shelter for her family.
But as Count Brancovis, their potential nemesis, a melodramatically directed Martin Thompson adopts something akin to a Transylvanian accent. Nor is the dramatic enterprise all that aided by a clearly mix ‘n’ matched collection of focus-pulling children, or David Shouse’s watery interpretation of Sara’s brother, David. Still, Hellman’s characters prove as adept at verbal combat as they are in other forms. At their heights, Tony Lea’s mortal repartee with Thompson is something to see, before an endgame dealing with the nature of wartime sacrifice.
The war is in the living room, and all must bear the ethical weight. In this uneven production, it still remains a fitting moral for that time, and this one.