WHEN ELEGANCE WAS IN FLOWER
by Harvey Perr
published May 1, 2009
Accent on Youth
now playing on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater
When the curtain comes up on the handsome and burnished set of a Manhattan duplex that John Lee Beatty has designed for the almost
self-consciously tasteful revival of Samson Raphaelson’s Accent on Youth, we are magically
transported back to 1934. There is not a single misstep in the crisp and clear first act, not in Daniel Sullivan’s elegant direction or in
the impeccably researched costumes that Jane Greenwood has designed or in the starchy look of the actors who wear them with such grace or
in the way the play itself, in the understated hands of its cherry-picked cast of nimble performers, emits its fluid and casual pearls of
wit. When the curtain comes down less than thirty minutes later, the mood is complete. We have entered another world, another time. If only
nostalgia, we think, were always as blissful and as perfumed as this. This is a photograph from an old Theatre Arts magazine come to life.
And this, we feel certain, is precisely what it was like to be in the theater way back when. If only it could have ended right
Unfortunately, the producers made the serious mistake of not providing us with a second intermission, where the original second
act ends; it might not have saved the evening, but, at least, it would have maintained the purity of its instincts. Instead, the rest of
the evening is a long one indeed, one that forces us to pay attention to a play that has no contemporary relevance and little historical
value and asks us to care about whether Steven Gaye, an attractive and successful playwright, who happens to have reached middle-age, can
find happiness with a much younger woman. Mr. Gaye, you see, is having trouble getting older, and, after years of writing comedies, has
written a serious play about his current dilemma, but he can’t seem to write the life he is living until he writes the life he wants to
live, which he does with the help of his adoring secretary who, in turn, does such a good job that she is transformed into an actress and
the star of his play and the woman in his life, a woman he insists would be better off with a younger man. They certainly had some clever
ideas about comedy circa 1934, didn’t they? It is hard to believe that, even back then, anyone cared very much for this kind of nonsense.
Well, apparently they did, and, not only that, they even made a supposedly worthy film version of this claptrap. Is this justification
enough for exhuming the darned thing?
It seems pointless to place the blame on anyone for the ultimate failure of Accent on
Youth, but, if the play were to engage us, even on the most frivolous level, our secretary turned star turned wife turned sometime-slut
should be someone we want to take home with us and take care of, but I’m afraid that Mary Catherine Garrison, despite nifty work in that
delicious first act, becomes less and less credible as the evening progresses and, worse, less and less charming. What we are left with is
the fact that its star, David Hyde Pierce, has both the requisite credibility and charm, as well as a dash of winking maturity, so that, in
the end, one can’t help wondering whether he may not be happier with someone a bit sadder but wiser than the character Ms. Garrison is
playing. There is something a little lopsided here. It is Mr. Hyde Pierce the audience wants to take home and take care of.
And there is, as well, a simply hilarious turn, composed of wayward bits of comic business, by Charles Kimbrough as a butler, who
was once a boxing trainer, and can therefore put up his dukes as well as play Jeeves to Pierce’s Bertie, and can even manage a sweet little
dance with his master when the occasion calls for it, and, in plays like this, that occasion always arises. It is of some interest that the
actor who played this part in 1934 – Ernest Cossart – was the only one to repeat his role in the film version, and that, in turn, launched
his long career as one of Hollywood’s best character actors. It may well be that the real historical value of Accent on Youth is that it was always the butler’s play.
As for Samson Raphaelson, you can get a better taste of his art by tuning into Turner Movie Classics and watching any of the
superb screenplays he wrote for the great Ernst Lubitsch: Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, Broken Lullaby, or One Hour With You, to name a few. And
though Suspicion is notoriously compromised Hitchcock, Raphaelson’s screenplay is
For lovers of artifacts and relics, the first act of Accent on Youth is elegance
personified. Otherwise, it is the least necessary revival of the season.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Joan Marcus