The Captive

By Edouard Bourdet
Directed by Doug Bradford Smith
Front Line Productions
Chelsea Arts Center
Non-union production (closed)
Review by Andrew Eggert

Conservative theatregoers buzzed in 1926 when a new play by a young French director made it to Broadway. Despite support from critics (including Brooks Atkinson, who praised its human treatment of a forbidden topic), the same middle-class morality questioned by the script revolted, and on February 27, 1927, at the height of Broadway's prolific Golden Age, police shut down the Empire Theatre production of The Captive. The New York stage was not ready for candid questions of lesbianism.

How different the era of Ellen DeGeneres: where once riot threatened, dated language and structure now risk yawns . But Front Line Productions revived the classic in a sharp new production, proving that, despite a musty exterior, the honest approach to characters and themes remains strikingly relevant and accessible.

Following the French stage tradition of Phèdre, The Captive considers the strain of an illicit love upon the conscience of one woman, in this case Irène de Montcel (Stefka Sorell). Though Irène marries the very eligible Jacques Virieu (Ed Moran) to comply with her father's wishes, her love for Madame D'Aiguines seems guided by fate. But unlike a classic Racine tragedy, there are no gods to blame on Bourdet's stage.

Sorrell captured Irène's roller-coaster emotions with expertise, at one moment floating about the stage in passionate rapture, the next wallowing in the pain of impossibility, willingly opening herself to scalding interrogation by family and friends. Moran crafted a similar contradiction into her husband Jacques, a stable foil on one hand, yet torn apart by the same flood of impracticable desire. Jacques willingly remains with Irène even after learning her darkest secret.

The supporting cast brought fresh perspectives to the central tragedy, each character suffering from at least a fraction of the general emotional malady. Especially notable were Katherine Brecka as Françoise Meillant, Irène's scarlet-clad rival for Jacques, and Frank Alexander as D'Aiguines, the husband of Irène's lover. The subtle exhaustion in each of Alexander's gestures encapsulated the effect of prolonged torment on the human spirit, and the penetrating desperation of his gaze became almost chilling. Only Eleanor Hutchins as Irène's younger sister Gisèle seemed misguided: she was far too young and inexperienced for the perspicacious 17-year-old suggested by the text.

Smith's bold directorial choices bridged the gap between past and present, allowing the production to speak more directly to its audience. Lavishly impressionistic sets and costumes alongside Paul Jones's lighting design evoked the general mindset of excess ruling Paris in the 1920s and grounded the production in its era, yet two structural adaptations brought the script up to date. Smith added a sensual movement monologue between Irène and Madame D'Aiguines to the end of Act One, presenting in actuality what was scandalous by mere suggestion in 1926. He also wisely clipped the tag scene from the end of the play, giving the final moment to Irène, not Jacques, and consequently presenting the conclusion as a liberating and optimistic gesture.

Front Line's production was therefore simultaneously nostalgic and modern. As the first major New York revival since the 1927 raid on the Empire, it presented the dilemmas of the past alongside the solutions of the present, reaffirming 60 years of progress while suggesting that some changes remain necessary. (Also featuring Nina Howes, Edmund Johnston and Warren Watson. Set construction Kent Patrick Hatch; costume alterations Kathryn Zarczynski.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Acting: 2
Directing: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1998 Andrew Eggert