Once upon a time, The Captive was hot stuff. Édouard Bourdet’s play caused a sensation in Paris in 1926, and again later that year on Broadway. But the Broadway run was cut short when authorities deemed the play obscene and shut it down, even arresting the actors (including a young Basil Rathbone). The reason? Well, a play where the central character is a lesbian just wasn’t considered suitable for the stage in those days. So this serious examination of female sexuality had to close, and New York audiences had to settle for shows with titillating titles like The Blonde Sinner, She Couldn’t Say No, Naked, and Bare Facts of 1926.
Today, of course, the subject matter is much less scandalous (especially at the Fringe Festival, where this show seems an especially odd fit). The Captive now seems more square than shocking; its stilted language and attitudes place it definitively in a pre-modern era. Bourdet was so afraid of upsetting his audience’s sensibilities that he never even introduces the object of the heroine’s affections – that woman is offstage, protecting the audience from kisses and longing looks. In this era, apparently, homosexuality was something to talk about discreetly, not something to dramatize.
The central dramatic conflict actually holds up fairly well: Irene, the heroine, tries to arrange a fake engagement to Jacques, her childhood friend, in order to keep the facts of her love life from her disapproving father. Jacques goes along with the scheme because he has secretly loved Irene for years and doesn’t mind keeping her secret. But then, he’s an expert at keeping secrets – just ask his married mistress.
The Captive is being staged in two rooms of The Physick House, a gorgeous 18th century Old City mansion still filled with its namesake owner’s furnishings and decorations. Seeing a show that’s set in Paris performed in front of a painting purchased from Napoleon’s brother is a special experience. Alas, The Captive isn’t special enough: much of the dialogue (in Arthur Hornblow Jr.’s 1926 translation) is so mannered that it makes the play’s melodramatic structure seem particularly dated. Several lines – such as Irene telling Jacques “I hope you won’t make love to that woman” – got unintended laughter.
Director Dan Hodge doesn’t help matters by having most of his cast provide stiff line readings, florid gestures, and facial expressions that are too big for the rooms. While the staging (with audience members only a foot or two away from the actors at times) should have made for an appealing intimacy, the stifling formality of the play and the production left me at a distance from the characters.
Still, a few of the performances do manage to cut through the decorum. Rachel Brodeur, always a compelling performer, captures Irene’s conflicted emotions effectively, while Chase Byrd makes the caddish Jacques oddly appealing. And Alex Boyle, as Irene’s sunny sister, makes one wish she had more to do.
The best performance comes from Felicia Leicht, who gives the role of Jacques’ discarded lover a palpable emotional openness. When Jacques wounds her, you can feel the sting.
The Captive may have gone too far for audiences in 1926, but today it doesn’t go far enough. It’s interesting as a historical curiosity, and it’s lovely to look at, but as a drama, it hasn’t aged well.
Running Time: 2 hours, including an intermission.
The Captive, part of the 2015 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, plays through September 20, 2015 at the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, performing at The Physick House – 321 South Fourth Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 413-1318, or purchase them online.