'Enchanted April' casts spell on Broadway

By CLAUDE SALHANI  |  May 30, 2003 at 1:40 PM
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NEW YORK, May 30 (UPI) -- Elizabeth von Arnim's beloved 1921 novel, "Enchanted April," has twice been dramatized for the movies and now has been adapted for the stage by Matthew Barber and is serving as a vehicle for four talented actresses -- Elizabeth Ashley, Jayne Atkinson, Molly Ringwald and Dagmara Dominczyk.

They head the cast of eight in a production originated by the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company in 2000 and now playing at the Belasco Theater on Broadway. The play is not as enchanting as the 1991 British film starring Joan Plowright in the dowager role being taken by Ashley, but it has not lost the novel's ability to cast a memorable spell despite its romantically rosy prose.

Ashley, now in the fifth decade of a remarkable acting career on Broadway, in films and on television, scores a pluperfect performance as a cranky, spoiled old widow, Mrs. Graves, who would rather live with her memories of Alfred Lord Tennyson than with her tiresome contemporaries. It is the actress's first old lady role.

But it is Atkinson who dominates the stage and even upstages the usually vivacious Ringwald to bring the enchantment promised by the play's title to the role of Lotty Wilton. It is as though her many previous stage roles, including a stellar performance in the recent Broadway revival of "Our Town," were merely an apprenticeship to playing the transforming role of Lotty.

Dominczyk, playing the role of an aristocratic vamp, Lady Caroline Bramble, is less in touch with her character than the rest of the cast, but her sleek flapper beauty and catlike movements give her performance a certain fascination. Ringwald is probably miscast in the subdued role of a religious, priggish housewife, but she does create a complete portrait of Rose Arnott, the most conflicted character in the play.

Rose Arnott is recruited on impulse by a fellow London ladies' club member, Lotty Wilton, to share rental of an Italian villa sight unseen for a month as a chance to get away from their tiresome husbands and failing marriages. They advertise for two more women to split the rent and wind up sharing the villa with Mrs. Graves and Lady Caroline.

How these ill-matched females begin to blossom under the sun-warmed trellises of blooming wisteria in their new Mediterranean setting is the crux of "Enchanted April." How Rose's and Lotty's marriages are repaired, how Lady Caroline finds her first true love, and how Mrs. Graves' starchiness is mellowed, involves considerable hanky-panky that is innocently entertaining under the sure-handed direction of Michael Wilson.

The nearest thing to naughty in this play is when Lotty's husband, Mellersh Wilton, is forced out of his shower by a water heater explosion with only a small towel to cover his nudity. That's as hilarious as it gets in an enchanted April that has more to do with adults beginning to grow up than with juvenile humor and the current Broadway penchant for full frontal nudity.

The men in the cast are equally splendid. Mellersh Wilton is played by the redoubtable Michael Cumpsty as a blustery, money-grubbing attorney who is just a big boy at heart. Daniel Gerroll does wonders with the unsympathetic role of Frederick Arnott, a popular biographer with a roving eye, and Michael Hayden, Broadway's most handsome leading man, is charm itself as the British owner of the villa.

Also notable is the performance of Patricia Conolly as the mischievous Italian servant, Constanza. But it is Jane Atkinson's contagiously radiant performance that makes "Enchanted April" worth a visit.

She may be a put-upon wife whose husband likens her mind to a hummingbird's because "one seldom sees it land," but she is determined to taste some of life's little pleasures and a measure of independence before springtime passes her by. In this she is totally convincing, metamorphosing herself from a frump into an adorably beautiful free spirit of a woman before your very eyes without recourse to a change of makeup.

Unfortunately, this show's production values suffer from an anemic budget of $2 million, robbing it of all the visual glory the film version captured on location on the Italian coast.

Designer Tony Straiges' first-act London scenes are played out against a black curtain with only a few pieces of Chippendale-style furniture to suggest several venues. He makes an attempt in the second act to evoke the feeling of a sunny terrace and a luxurious Italian interior by means of architectural fragments, but it is less than successful despite Rui Rita's inspired lighting.

In contrast, Jess Goldstein's period costumes are richly detailed and visually delicious, especially Mrs. Graves' sumptuous Edwardian weeds, Lotty Wilton's unexpectedly flirtatious swimming apparel, Rose Arnott's ethereal white ensemble, and Lady Caroline's elegant satin evening dress. They convey the feel of the 1920s in a way the sets are unable to do.

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