Play: “Now I Ask You”
Group: Muddy Waters Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand
Dates: June 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 314-799-8399 or www.muddywaterstheatre.org
Story: Richard Ashleigh is looking forward to the marriage of his daughter, Lucy. After all, she’s engaged to a prosperous young WASPish businessman, Tom Drayton, whose political and social beliefs correspond nicely with Mr. Ashleigh’s. Mrs. Ashleigh is happy to welcome Tom as well, although she seems a bit more liberal in her thinking. She accepts, in fact, Lucy’s bohemian friend Leonora, an avant garde artist who has a penchant of saying whatever is on her mind, regardless of anyone’s embarrassment.
Marriage plans are thrown out of whack, however, when Lucy informs Tom that she actually believes in open relationships and free love, which she says mark the true bond between two people. Mr. Ashleigh is shocked and appalled, Tom is stunned but Mrs. Ashleigh seems to encourage it. Actually, she tells Tom secretly that he should play along with Lucy’s wayward thoughts until the young woman comes to her senses. She advises Tom to accept Lucy’s free-spirited marriage vows and then quickly appear to enter into a relationship with ‘Leo,’ while at the same time Leo’s poet friend Gabriel seems to think that Lucy has eyes for him, all designed to raise Lucy’s ire. Now, I ask you, what’s to come of this charade?
Highlights: Eugene O’Neill already was cranking out one-act plays and some full-length ones at a prolific clip when he penned this ever-so-light soufflé of a comedy with his lover and eventual second wife, Agnes Boulton O’Neill in 1916. Set in New York City in that year, it pokes fun at the uptight philosophies of WASPish sorts who likely would have turned up their noses at the sight of the adventurous son of a hard-swilling Irish actor.
It serves as an interesting glimpse at the potential of perhaps America’s most honored and powerful 20th century playwright, and an unexpected bridge in Muddy Waters Theatre’s season of works by O’Neill, between the earthy “Desire Under the Elms” that opened the season and his most famous work, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” which will conclude it.
Other Info: “Now I Ask You” is a rarely performed work in the O’Neill canon, and it’s easy to see why. Without his name attached to it, it’s doubtful it would ever have been published; as director Jerry McAdams points out, O’Neill himself said, “It’s not my sort of stuff, but it is a damn good idea for a popular success,” perhaps of the dinner theater variety. It’s silly and overly predictable, although it does have some witty dialogue that talented actresses such as Andra Harkins and Sarajane Alverson can deliver delightfully.
They’re the best parts of this production. Under McAdams’ careful and meticulous direction, Alverson has never been better and plays the role of the ditzy artist Leo with kooky flair. Harkins, always a steady pro, fully inhabits the part of the scheming Mrs. Ashleigh as she effortlessly maneuvers other characters at her whim.
Robert Ashton is fine as Mr. Ashleigh but essentially disappears after the first act in the underwritten part. Alan David has fun as the self-important poet Gabriel, who is most impressed with his ways with the ladies, and Ben Ritchie offers a nice contrast as the easygoing, somewhat simple-minded Tom. Young Katie McGee, a Saint Louis University theater student, does well enough in her role as the idealistic Lucy, and should benefit from working with established professionals in this production.
Dramaturg Andrea Braun found this seldom-performed curio piece in the O’Neill archives. It’s brought to fruition in this presentation with a handsome set designed by Sean Savoie which is replete with well-appointed furniture and rugs that convey the swanky digs of upper-class New Yorkers, all embellished under Jonathan Lebovic’s lighting design. Costumes by Mary Beth Amsler fit the characters in fancy togs with the exception of the suitably garish wardrobe of Leo.
You may forget the plot of “Now I Ask You” on the way to the parking lot afterward, but it’s palatable fodder that offers a view of the unlikely, a drawing room comedy penned by the eternally depressed O’Neill.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.