In football, the term ‘second half team’ refers to a team that plays badly in the first half but is very powerful in the second half as it wins the game.
That’s the case with Enchanted April, the play that opened last weekend at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at Drew University in Madison (through June 26). The play, by Matthew Barber, is just dreadful in its first half. I was so upset watching such a terrible play that I was going to call an ambulance to get me to the literary hospital.
The second act, though, was one if best theater works I have seen in my life, simply marvelous and plain hilarious. I could not believe it was the same play.
The 1922 play is based on a novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim and is one of those classic 1920s stories. In them, unhappy and/or desperate people leave England and/or the USA and travel to the French or Italian Rivieras to spend a few weeks laying on the beach, drinking heavily and finding young lovers whose attentions remind them of the good old days back home. Rejuvenated, they head home and turn their dreary lives around.
And so it is with the play Enchanted April. An unhappy, overly zealous young woman, as bubbly as they come, Lotty Wilton, meets an unhappy co-parishioner in England after seeing a newspaper ad for two weeks at an Italian villa in April that offers many promises. Lotty is tired of her staid marriage to her dull frumpish husband Mellerish (yes, Mellerish). The other woman, Rose Arnott. is equally disappointed with her husband and life. In fact, Lotty tells her she is the “Madonna of disappointment.” Lotty talks Rose into going to Italy with her, leaving their husbands home. They pack their bags. They discover, though, that they don’t have enough money for the Italian villa, so they recruit two other women, total strangers, into joining them. All of this is done with drama and dialogue that would put anyone right to sleep.
Go to Italy for two weeks with Lotty? I wouldn’t go to the kitchen with her for two minutes.
Then, at a very welcome intermission, I decided to buy a candy bar to consume in order to survive the play, only to be told that I could not eat it while watching the play. I had to stand outside the theater and eat it while I watched the play but NOT watch the play.
It was that kind of a day.
The second act, though. Well! It was just splendid.
It takes place on a lovely patio of the Italian villa. You can almost smell the garden and flowers there. Here the four women begin to bicker. One is the gorgeous Caroline Bramble, who is in Italy to get away from a boyfriend whom she wants to marry but spurns her. Well, he does not spurn her. Yes, He does. It’s complicated. There is also Mrs. Graves, a widow who gives the word “cranky” new meaning. At the villa, also, is its owner, the charming Anthony Wilding, and his maid, the hysterically funny Constanza, for my money one of the theater’s great, great characters.
The women all flourish in Italy. They find new meaning in their lives and begin to realize that in their view a husband is the husband they wanted from movies and novels. Their real hubbies are, in the end, pretty good despite their flaws. So, after a week, the two women who met at church back home, Rose and Lotty, think about sending for their spouses.
Now, a warning. There is a lot of confusion in the play. Who is really who? Who thinks they are who? Why are we here? Or there? The confusion works itself out and is part of the endearing charm of the play. Bear with it.
The beautiful Caroline’s beau? Oh, he may come, too, but, uh, there’s a little problem there.
I was constantly reminded of that 2003 movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane. You remember it. All is woe in her life – she’s a writer - and so she movies to Italy and buys an old villa. She repairs the villa, and her life, and in the end the most gorgeous man in the world, a great fan of her books, walks into her life (only in movies, right?).
The four women and, well, everybody and his brother, clash at the villa and all seek help from each other – and get it.
The director, Bonnie J. Monte, has done a fine job of getting through act one so that the play can flourish in act two. She really works hard to define the four women and their husbands. Monte gets fine work from the actors in the play. Monetre Magrath as Lotty, does a complete turnaround in act two and emerges as a little bit nutty and altogether lovable runaway wife. Her buddy Rose Arnott, played admirably by Carey Van Driest, loosens up in Italy and becomes agreeable to all. Their husbands (Greg Jackson as Mellerish and Anthony Marble as Frederick Arnott) stumble though act one but emerge as toned down and likable characters in act two. The beautiful Caroline Bramble, played by Samantha Bruce, is, well, breathtakingly gorgeous and, naturally, troubled. Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Shepherd) is just a hoot. Aaron McDaniel is the charming Wilding and Celeste Ciulla is the formidable and dazzling Constanza.
The gorgeous second act villa patio, with its own staircase down into the street, is designed by director Monte, also. Lighting is by Michael Giannitti, Sound by Steven Beckel and costumes by Paul Canada.
So, if you can’t get yourself to a villa in Italy for two weeks, see this play instead. It will renew your faith in people and marriage and serve as a great “second half.”
For tickets to Enchanted April, click here.
Photos by Daniel Rader