Theater Reviews

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Manhattan Theatre Club, New York
Through April 22


Poor Laura Keene. History remembers this innovative 19th century actress-manager only as the woman whose production of "Our American Cousin" played Ford's Theatre the night President Lincoln was shot. But Keene was more than that. In his mildly entertaining comedy "Our Leading Lady," now receiving its world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, Charles Busch ("The Tale of the Allergist's Wife") tries to set the record straight.

Set in Ford's Theatre and Keene's hotel room in the days before and immediately after Lincoln's assassination, "Lady" is at first a funny valentine to the theater. The cast assembles onstage at Ford's for an urgent rehearsal, and a motley troupe of players they are. There's Keene (Kate Mulgrew), an auburn-haired diva pacing about in a black, hoop-skirted gown, scolding her untalented leading man and lover (Maxwell Caulfield). There are Verbena De Chamblay (Kristine Nielsen), a jealous second lead with Southern sympathies, and her character-actor husband (Reed Birney), who has eyes for Keene's youthful male assistant (Billy Wheelan). The aging character actress (a wonderful Barbara Bryne) can't remember her lines, and the inebriated ingenue (Amy Rutberg, giving a clever performance) shows up late. From time to time Keene's dresser, Madame Wu-Chan (Ann Duquesnay), injects sarcasm in an incomprehensible tongue.

Act 2's mood is more serious, as the cast mulls the tragedy's effect on their lives and careers. Keene's reputation is shattered, but, selfless for once, she defends her actors against any suspicion of conspiracy in the president's murder.

Making Keene the center of a play is an excellent idea, but Busch seems unsure if "Lady" should be an out-and-out sendup in the manner of his earlier comedies like "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" or a truly artful blend of farce and substance. Currently it is neither, and along the way the opportunity to make the fascinating Keene a complex character goes missing.

A more accomplished production would help. But director Lynne Meadow, also MTC's artistic director, stages Act 1 as though it were the worst 19th century melodrama and pushes her actors toward caricature. Mulgrew sounds as though she is still channeling Katharine Hepburn in the bio-play "Tea at Five," and the cast speaks Busch's dialogue as though it were more artificial than "Our American Cousin."

The production finds a truer level in Act 2, when Meadow and her performers allow themselves to relax and trust the play. But, once again, Laura Keene deserves better.

OUR LEADING LADY
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage II
Credits:
Playwright: Charles Busch
Director: Lynne Meadow
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Cast:
Laura Keene: Kate Mulgrew
Harry Hawk: Maxwell Caulfield
Gavin De Chamblay: Reed Birney
Verbena De Chamblay: Kristine Nielsen
Maude Bentley: Barbara Bryne
W.J. Ferguson: Billy Wheelan
Madame Wu-Chan: Ann Duquesnay
Clementine Smith: Amy Rutberg
Major Hopwood: J.R. Horne
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