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You and I

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 14, 2018

Aidan Eastwood, Elisabeth Preston, and Timothy C. Goodwin
Photo by Anna Paola Pizzocaro

The story of the writing of You and I turns out to be more compelling than You and I itself. Philip Barry, fatherless from infancy and raised in a modest Irish-Catholic household, was to inherit a substantial portion of the family estate on his eighteenth birthday. As that estate dwindled — his older brother was making a shambles of their dad's masonry business — the family made a deal with him: Let us keep the money, and we'll send you to Yale. He took them up on that and, while in New Haven, developed an interest in playwrighting. A couple of years later he enrolled in George Pierce Baker's dramatic workshop at Harvard, where there was an annual playwrighting competition, and first prize was a Broadway production. He wrote two plays in his year at the Baker workshop, meanwhile falling in love with Ellen Semple, who was higher-born than he and later became a noted portrait artist. Fearing a playwright couldn't support a family, he discouraged her from marrying him. But they did, and honeymooning with Ellen in Europe, he met with various bankers and financiers, networking to establish a business career should his dramatic efforts fail. While sailing homeward, a cable arrived: One of his plays, The Jilts, had won the Baker competition. Retitled You and I, it opened in 1923 and was a critical and commercial success. Barry was established.

This was all conveyed at a post-performance talkback of You and I at the Metropolitan Playhouse, its first New York production since the original. Relaying it all was Miranda Barry, the author's granddaughter, who was thrilled to see it for the first time and congratulated the actors and director, Michael Hardart, on such a beautiful job. On this we do not agree. Under Hardart's uncertain direction, You and I emerges as a footnote to a notable career, a good-natured but vapid drawing-room comedy whose chief interest lies in how Barry spun so many autobiographical threads into it.

A lot does happen, and a lot of it's in the first act. We're in the library of the Whites' country home in Mt. Kisco, rather dowdily designed by Caitlynn Barrett. Roderick/"Ricky" White (Aidan Eastwood), college-age son of Maitland/"Matey" White (Timothy C. Goodwin), is besotted with Veronica/"Ronny" Duane (Rebbekah Vega-Romero). He proposes and she accepts, though it'll mean ditching his plans to study architecture, his passion, in Paris. Instead, to support her, he'll take a dull corporate-trainee job in the office of Matey's boss, G.T. Warren (Albert Warren Baker), a jovial blowhard who'd probably be played in the movie by Eugene Pallette. This rekindles old longings in Matey, who years ago abandoned his own passion, painting, to take a job with Warren and support Nancy/"Nanny" (Elisabeth Preston) — why does everybody in this play have a nickname? The elder Whites are financially comfortable, with their Westchester home and a Manhattan pied-a-terre, and as in love with each other as they ever were, so Nanny urges Matey to take a year off and just paint. Not knowing that the market is about to tumble and his financial security to collapse, he agrees, and engages Etta (Meredith M. Sweeney), their maid, to pose for him, after much alleged hilarity in which she mistakenly assumes he means pose nude. Observing all this and commenting wryly on it is Matey's pal Geoff (Mac Brydon), a successful trash novelist all too aware of how he's sold out artistically. And that's just Act One.

Matey sets up an artist's studio in the attic and there are two more acts (but just one intermission), and the thing pads out to almost two and a half hours, but the themes have been established. The main one, interestingly, is one Barry explored again in a later and much tidier play, Holiday: In the name of pursuing the things we really care about, are we forsaking our responsibilities, and our loved ones? His generous viewpoint is no, we're not, and that certainly was borne out in his own life, where he authored some 20 plays, many of them hits, notably Holiday, The Animal Kingdom, and The Philadelphia Story. But what if you're not as talented as Philip Barry, and your loved ones may suffer for it? That's something Matey has to struggle with, and you'd expect it to be a more wrenching struggle than it is. But Barry's plainly rejecting the capitalistic-materialistic view prevalent at that time, and this time, and that puts a vibrant spin on much of his work, though not especially here. Perhaps, his granddaughter suggested at the talkback, he was so good at writing for the upper class because he wasn't from it, and didn't entirely agree with it.

Most of the cast also showed up for the talkback. They seem like lovely people, so it feels churlish to point out that Vega-Romero and Eastwood perform utterly out of period, which is a problem when the dialogue runs to "They're both full of red ants" and "I've never given a happy hang for anyone else," or that Goodwin, while conveying Matey's decency and ambivalence, doesn't do so with a great deal of color. Preston, though she reads too young for Nanny, makes a touchingly devoted spouse, and Sweeney makes a real meal of Etta, a sort of Bronxville Eliza Doolittle who lapses between well- and ill-spoken as she cautiously scales the social ladder. The others are fine, and so are Christopher Weston's lighting and Sidney Fortner's costumes, though one does raise an eyebrow at slacks on women in 1922.

It's a sweet play; truly, as Hardart (who needs to pick up the pacing) suggested at the talkback, there's not a villain in it. Love and warmth permeate the stage, every character is well-intentioned, and whatever mistakes they make are made in the names of affection and sacrifice. And, as Hardart pointed out, in these days where everything is conflict and confrontation and bitterness, it's a relief to be among such civilized people for a couple of hours. We're not convinced, however, that You and I can still arrestingly hold a stage, or that its themes aren't better stated in other works by Barry and others. Thank you, Metropolitan Playhouse, for giving us a look at it, and by all means bring back more Philip Barry — Hotel Universe sounds really intriguing, as does Here Come the Clowns. But maybe, after October 7, this one should go back in the drawer.

You and I
Through October 7
Metropolitan Playhouse in The Cornelia Connelly Center, 220A East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.brownpapertickets

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