Destined for a career in architecture which he has always wanted, Roderick White (Ricky to his friends) has fallen in love with his next-door neighbor Veronica (Ronny) Duane. When he kisses her just before he is to leave Mt. Kisco to get the training he needs in Paris, Ronny reveals that she has always loved him. The next thing we know Ricky offers to put off going on his trip, go to work right away for his father’s firm for a time, study at home nights, and so the young couple become engaged to be married.
As it happens, his parents aren’t thrilled as this is just what his father Maitland did exactly 20 years before, as he is reminded when his old friend Geoffrey Nichols, a now famous writer, shows up. Both jilted what they thought they loved best: Maitland gave up his career as an artist to marry Nancy and went into soap manufacture in order to have a steady income, while Geoffrey gave up his fiancée in order to follow his star and became a wildly popular novelist. Maitland and Nancy’s marriage has been extremely happy, but giving up one’s dream for marriage is not always a prescription for happiness. And at 43, Maitland is just about to take a leave from his job and see if he can become the artist he never was. Will Ricky wake up sometime in the future and regret the road not taken?
The theme of “like father, like son” is the meaning of the rather bland title. Originally, Barry entitled the work by the infelicitous title The Jilts which described the play a great deal better. If the plot of the younger generation repeating the mistakes of the older one sounds familiar, Somerset Maugham’s greatest comedy, The Circle, on just this theme of like mother, like daughter had only closed on Broadway one year before. Edith Wharton had also written novels on this theme, as did John P. Marquand some years later.
While Barry was to become famous writing plays about the very rich, the Whites are of the middle class and live on earned money. In the play’s second act, eight months have passed, and money, not so surprisingly, has become tight for both Maitland and Ricky. However, this would be fine if the artificial style of the play and the dated twenties slang did not seem arch and affected. And while director Michael Hardart’s production is always stylish and graceful, he has not helped greatly with his casting or his mannered and theatrical approach to the material. The characters talk in an elevated, literate language but they are basically very simple people, not the kind who sit around tossing off bon mots. Here they speak Barry’s realistic lines as though they do.
Possibly more serious, the audience is often ahead of the characters, guessing the surprises before they occur. And equally damaging, the play’s three acts are performed in two parts (Act I and II together, and Act III by itself.) Eight months go between the first two acts and a great deal has happened in that time. Without the intermission, it feels like five minutes, not two seasons later. The pace could probably be quicker as the dialogue tends to go over the same issues again and again, and no need to dwell on the obvious. Although the characters talk and behave like sophisticates, there is nothing in their personalities or milieu to back this up. Mt. Kisco, 1922, does not sound like an enclave of bohemians. The family nicknames (Nanny, Matey, Ricky, Ronny) seem too cutesy, rather than advanced; however, this is Barry’s fault rather than the production.
The unhelpful casting is not convincing. Rather than sound like a college graduate, in Aidan Eastwood’s mouth, Barry’s lines sound like he has just graduated from high school. And while Barry’s stage directions require that his father Maitland White (played by Timothy C. Goodwin) be in the pink of health from golf and squash, is there any reason why he and his wife Nancy (Elisabeth Preston) should tower over their son who is old enough to make his own decisions about his life? As Ricky’s fiancée, Rebbekah Vega-Romero is too girlish and immature, suggesting she hasn’t thought through the consequences of making him give up architecture for a job in manufacturing.
While they are all fine actors, there seems to be an air of artificiality that undercuts the seriousness of Barry’s theme (be true to yourself). Preston, too elegant and chic, sounds like she is perennially presiding at a garden party. While Goodwin tells us that he regrets having not had a chance at painting, nothing in his manner relates resentment or bitterness on how his life has turned out. Mac Brydon as the successful novelist makes him just a little too hardy and carefree, considering he is in Maitland’s house. Albert Warren Baker does little with the stereotyped manufacturer G.T. Warren, Maitland and later Ricky’s boss. In the most poorly written role, Meredith M. Sweeney as Etta the maid who becomes Maitland’s model is require to put on a highfalutin English accent to show how much culture she has attained while rub shoulders with another class of people. She has been directed to sound like a cross between Eliza Doolittle and Jean Harlow.
The Act I set for the library of the White’s Mt. Kisco country home by Caitlynn Barrett puts one in mind of a Park Avenue apartment, rather than a summer place. The Studio set in the attic for the second and third acts is more believable. For the most part costume designer Sidney Fortner’s women’s dresses are attractive, but while some may be period appropriate are rather unflattering to the trim actresses. Christopher Weston’s lighting is suitable without making any impression of its own.
It is always interesting to see a major playwright’s early work to see how far they grew and what interested them from the outset. (Recall Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come, Arthur Miller’s The Man Who Had All the Luck, and Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales). You and I is such a play, more interesting for its author’s later work than for itself. Barry who was to go on to the philosophical and experimental Hotel Universe and Here Come the Clowns as well as hit drawing room comedies had it in him to rise above the old-fashioned form that he had chosen for most of his plays. Metropolitan Playhouse’s production of You and I does not solve the play’s problems for a modern audience but does offer a rare opportunity to see the early work of an admired author who went on to great acclaim in future plays.
You and I (through October 7, 2018)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission