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A Marriage Contract

Delicious turn-of-the-last-century satire by the prolific Augustin Daly (“Under the Gaslight”) on marriage, fidelity, and country life versus the city.

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Jennifer Reddish and Anna Stefanic in a scene from Metropolitan Playhouse’s production of “A Marriage Contract” (Photo credit: Hannah Stampleman)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

New York man-about-town Rob Fleming wants to marry Sabina, daughter of Jessekiah Pognip, East Lemons, New Jersey’s most successful factory owner. However her father knows all about the temptations of the big city and Rob is not his idea of a suitable son-in-law. Pognip refuses his consent if the couple lives in the city. He offers a different kind of marriage contract: he will agree to give his consent only if Fleming will live in East Lemons. Defeated, Fleming agrees and puts up with the smug, provincial, placid life of East Lemons for six months – and living with his father-in-law.

Then he raises cain one night rather than attend another meeting of the Browning Society led by pompous, pretentious Professor Fox-Merrywell. When the scandalous aftereffects include Fleming announcing that he is moving back to the city as he can’t take rural life anymore where everyone minds everyone else’s business, the big question is whether Sabina will follow him or remain in her home town with her father.

Mike Durkin and Trevor St. John-Gilbert in a scene from Metropolitan Playhouse’s production of “A Marriage Contract” (Photo credit: Ed Forti)

A Marriage Contract by Augustin Daly, the third play to be rediscovered by Metropolitan Playhouse from this prolific 19th century playwright of 100 titles after Under the Gaslight and Leah the Forsaken, is a clever comedy on the subjects of city versus country life and marriage and fidelity. A subplot concerns Sabina’s cousin Juno Jessamine and her lawyer husband Ned who has often been on the razzle. Having granted him a year to sow his last wild oats, Juno gives him a taste of his own medicine when she discovers him in another peccadillo. She leaves him to go stay with the Flemings in East Lemons, taking with her Natty Grinnell, her cousin and former suitor. She has the local gossips buzzing over her assumed infidelity of appearing without her husband in the company of another man.

Originally titled A Test Case when the play had its premiere in New York in 1892, it is one of Daly’s many adaptations of European successes, this one based on a German comedy of Blumenthal and Kadelburg. While A Marriage Contract is a charming evening and has much satire that is still relevant, its genre is that of drawing room comedy. While stylish and graceful, Alex Roe’s production is much too broad to be entirely successful. Several of the actors give over-the-top characterizations of recognizable types which somewhat unbalances the play. In the manner of the popular form of 19th century popular theater, the play is a bit too long for its content and could use a bit of trimming. Nevertheless, the production is entertaining though many of the surprises are telegraphed long in advance of their revelations on stage.

Tyler Kent, J.M. McDonough and Trevor St. John-Gilbert in a scene from Metropolitan Playhouse’s production of “A Marriage Contract” (Photo credit: Hannah Stampleman)

The actors vary in style so that they do not all seem to be appearing in the same play. As the hero and bon vivant Robert Fleming, Trevor St. John-Gilbert’s performance is so broad that he almost turns the play into farce. On the other hand, statuesque Jennifer Reddish (exquisitely dressed by costume designer Sidney Fortner) has such a handle on the drawing room comedy aspect of the play that she appears to the manner born. Mike Durkin’s Jessekiah Pognip, top man in East Lemons, NJ, is so expansive a performance that he seems to be sending it up, while Anna Stefanic as his daughter Sabina is bland enough to fade into the woodwork.

J.M. McDonough, a Metropolitan Playhouse regular, is delightful as the henpecked Dr. Tinkey, 30 years ago a NY man about town, but now enthrall to his wife. Tyler Kent’s deft performance as Natty Grinnell, Juno’s cousin who falls in love almost daily with every pretty woman he sees, makes this minor character much more important than he has any right to be. Teresa Kelsey is fine as the overbearing and gossipy Mrs. Tinkey, who rules East Lemons – and her husband – with an iron hand. The pomposity of academics is successfully captured by Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr. as Professor Fox-Merrywell, arbiter of good taste and morals in East Lemons.

Dionna Eshleman and Teresa Kelsey in a scene from Metropolitan Playhouse’s production of “A Marriage Contract” (Photo credit: Yu Fei Liang)

While Roe’s two designs for New York City and East Lemons settings are serviceable, they never make the distinction between city and country life clear as described by Daly in his stage directions. Fortner’s period costumes are another one of her triumphs and beautifully define each character. The lighting design by Christopher Weston is as bright and cheerful as the play itself. While the Metropolitan Playhouse revival of Augustin Daly’s A Marriage Contract is not perfect in all details, it is a worthy addition to the American theatrical heritage and great fun.

A Marriage Contract (through March 18, 2018)

Metropolitan Playhouse, 200 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (497 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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