An unadulterated look at a one man’s plans for an affair
The American Century Theater enters its 20th – and final – season itching to make a lasting impression. This the company does with its production of George Axelrod’s Broadway hit, The Seven Year Itch.
It was not a rash decision.
The show and its cast put on a rousing – and arousing – performance that’s well worth the segue from the beltway to find this gem of a theater housed in an Arlington Middle School.
The play’s success on the Great White Way, from late November of 1952 through August 1955, was eclipsed by the 1955 release of the movie of the same name, starring Marilyn Monroe. Thanks to the puritanical Motion Picture Code of the period, known as the Hays Code, the film, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, had a vastly different plotline. Though the ending was essentially the same, the original plot was greatly … adulterated.
The seventh commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,’ is the focus of Axelrod’s mid-century comic drama. The show trod taboo ground in an era before Elizabeth Taylor and Monica Lewinsky made affairs with married men or women an acceptable office cooler topic.
The age-old Clairol question – Does she or doesn’t she? – becomes Will he or Won’t he?
It is also one of those rare productions where the lead character is not only onstage the entire performance, he also talks to the audience – or to himself – nonstop. The audience knows his mindset, what he’s thinking and why he reacts the way he does.
It takes a highly professional actor to handle the demands of the role, and make it appear casual and effortless. Though he is physically older than his character, Bruce Alan Rauscher portrays Richard Sherman, a 42-year old monogamous married middle-class Manhattanite, as if he were his twin.
Though major kudos go to Rauscher for his performance, kudos also go to Rip Claassen for his fluid direction of the show, and his excellent casting choices.
Richard’s been married to Helen Sherman (Emily Morrison) for seven years. They have a son Ricky (Ethan Ocasio). Helen and Ricky are spending the summer at shore town up north. Richard is scheduled to join his family on weekends. During the week, he’s all alone in the family’s Gramercy Park apartment in Manhattan.
In the midst of a mid-life meltdown, Richard’s been warned by doctors to stop drinking and smoking. He’s been good – for about six weeks.
Trouble begins when a heavy potted tomato plant crashes down from the terrace of the apartment directly above Richard’s. He’s been on his terrace patio, listening to a baseball game and watching Pat, an elderly neighbor (Elaine A. Farrell), undress. He steps inside moments before the plant makes its airborne entrance. It’s followed soon after by the arrival of The Girl (Carolyn Kashner) at his door.
Earlier, Richard had avowed his fidelity to his wife, and fantasized about three women he felt attempted to seduce him earlier in his marriage. A family friend Elaine (Rachel M. Loose) came on to him at a party in the apartment. Miss Morris (Rachel Murray) was a stenographer who enjoyed taking dictation while seated on his lap at the company where he works as an advertising manager for a publisher of dime-store novels. (“He wants to change the title of The Scarlet Letter to I Am An Adultress,” Richard scoffed.) Marie-Whatever-Her-Name-Was (Chanukah Jane Lilburne), clad only in a towel, once enticed him to skinny dip.
“We didn’t do anything but swim,” he claimed piously.
Nearly killed by the tomato plant, Richard invites The Girl, a 21-year-old, to come down for a drink. When she arrives at his door, he is instantly aroused. And, why not? She oozes sensuality from every pore. Kashner plays innocent sexuality to the torrid hilt.
For her part, The Girl assumes Richard is old. In a high, schoolgirl voice, she asks him what Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923) was like.
She tells him about her life, including a stint as a nude model on a beach for a photography book. Coincidentally, Richard has a copy of the book. He looks at her photo when she is out of the room. Um. He likes it.
The next day, he’s lamenting his feelings with Dr. Brubaker (Steve Lebens), a psychiatrist whose book is being readied for publication by Richard’s company. The doctor is not happy with the sensational title the publisher cooked up for his dry tome or with Richard’s new line of thought.
In an over-the-top hysterical scene, Richard fantasizes an adulterous relationship between his wife and novelist Tom MacKenzie (Ric Andersen). The two portray a mock sultry affair complete with heaving breasts, quivering lips and loose limbs. Emily Morrison and Andersen pull out all the stops in their screamingly hysterical parody of every “running in the rain” love scene. That imagery fuels Richard’s desire to have an affair of his own.
The Girl returns and exclaims: “You’re not likely to fall desperately in love with me. You’re more mature.” A few minutes later, you can see the machinery move in Kashner’s head as she has a frank talk with her own free-spirited conscience. Afterwards, she eyes Rauscher like he’s a rare filet mignon.
Though it’s not something you’d expect from a sexy, young character, That Girl makes joking references to Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” when Richard shows her the apartment’s “stairway to nowhere.”
She later proves him wrong.
Trena M. Weiss’ set design, a living room and library-music room area, is a portrait of what a 1950s apartment might have resembled. Richard’s imagination – and the audiences’- fills in the blanks during the fantasy scenes.
The placement of several glass ashtrays around the set might be jarring to a Gen X or Millennial, but not to older generations who remember when smoking indoors was acceptable.
The lighting design, by Marianne Meadows, is understated – a slight dimming of the lights indicates when Richard or The Girl is experiencing a fantasy sequence.
Rip Claassen does double duty as the costume designer. His designs are perfectly in tune with the production’s classic, universal theme. The characters’ garments are typical of the ‘50s, without becoming overly “Donna Reed.” They evoke the period yet have a timeless appeal.
Running Time Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
The Seven Year Itch plays through October 11, 2014 at The American Century Theater at Theatre II in the Gunston Arts Center – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.