The curtain rises at the Old Globe and vwa-lah! We’re in the majestic living room of a Victorian mansion. A bay-window seat, with nine-foot windows, overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge (we’re in San Francisco’s Marina District, east of the Presidio and up, maybe, around Lombard). An antique chandelier, sporting two tiers of large glass balls, hangs from the 12-foot ceiling. Intricate Victorian molding — polished maple or golden oak? — makes the entire room look sculpted.
Add the occasional clang of a cable car and the dronings of tugboats and foghorns — like tubas and forlorn baritones — and Alexander Dodge’s set for The Pleasure of His Company shouts “dream house.” The set’s so appealing, you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave such a stately, comfortable abode. But leaving is what the drawing-room comedy’s about.
We’re in San Francisco, June of 1958. In less than a week, young Jessica Poole will marry Roger Henderson. She plays piano and adores poetry and art; he raises prize bulls in the Napa Valley and is numb to culture. Though their differences are obvious, Jessica sees through them and loves, she says, his pure heart.
Jessica’s prosaic stepfather Jim owns the house, which her mother Katherine treasures. The sturdy walls and glimmering antiques give Katherine a sense of permanence. During her first marriage, to Biddeford “Pogo” Poole, esquire, she knew nothing comparable. An international playboy, he’s been globe-hopping since their divorce 15 years earlier. If Pogo’s done half the things he boasts, he’d be stiff competition for the guy in the Dos Equis commercials (“stay thirsty, my friends”) alleged to be “the most interesting man in the world.”
Guess who’s coming to the wedding? Even though he’s only written Jessica three letters in 15 years, Pogo arrives. He orders 15 cases of Dom Perignon, vintage ’43 and ’47. But has he come to give Jessica away at the altar or steal her away before marriage “cuts her down in the prime of her life”? She should, he says, quoting Henry David Thoreau, march to her own drummer, hear her own music.
Sides form in the long, uneventful first act: the stay-at-homes vs. the hit-the-roads. The former — Katherine, her husband Jim, and Jessica’s fiancé — advocate security, responsibility, respectability (Pogo, they claim, “can order dinner but can’t order his life”). Hit-the-roaders champion the spontaneity, beauty, and danger that travel affords. Their arguments exude excitement.
The script slants the case so relentlessly in favor of hit-the-roaders, pogo-sticking from country to country on a grand tour, that the stay-at-homes’ motives feel leaden. Their best reason, at the Old Globe, is Dodge’s gorgeous living room, especially when York Kennedy’s lighting crafts an incrementally roseate sunset throughout Act One.
If you don’t inspect it too closely, The Pleasure of His Company’s a bauble and, though talky, somewhat entertaining. The play’s so undemanding, you might be surprised that the authors also wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Nonetheless, it’s hard to overlook emotional gaps (how, for example, could Jessica romanticize such an absent father?) and blazingly clear-cut oppositions.
Fabio Toblini’s period costumes — drab browns for the stay-at-homes, flashy hues for Pogo — enforce a current stereotype. Toblini could have dressed the former in red and the latter in blue, since the play reflects today’s alleged red-state-versus-blue-state, conservative/liberal opposition. It’s probably unfair to project contemporary concerns onto a period piece, but the cut-and-dried contrast between authenticity and elitism is as shaky in the play as it is among today’s more rabid prognosticators.
In 1958, Pogo scored points for daring. Today, he’s exhibit A for “Peter Pan syndrome.” He’s running not toward adventure but away from adulthood. Elegant Patrick Page almost succeeds in making Pogo dashing (after the opening-night curtain, those who stood applauded Page’s lively comic turn), but he can’t gloss over the obvious: Pogo’s a spoiled brat. His lopsided feelings for his daughter sound more like a cry for attention than sincere affection. Pogo doesn’t want Jessica; Peter Pan wants another Wendy.
Among the stay-at-homes — including Jim Abele as Jessica’s stepfather and Matt Biedel as Roger — only Ellen Karas’s Katherine gets to fight back, some. Karas has spunk and an impressive slow burn, but the script sabotages her from the start. Sab Shimono gets laughs as Toi, the servant. Dressed in a white cotton suit with a mop of silver hair and mustache, Ned Schmidtke’s Mackenzie Savage looks like Mark Twain and advocates Thoreau’s rugged individualism. But the script tags him too: the champion of the solitary life ends up playing solitaire.
Erin Chambers is a chipper Jessica, though her voice fades when she talks upstage (there may be a dead spot near the bay window). The character’s underdrawn and, in the end, hard to take, even in a pleasant, drawing-room comedy. Jessica’s plans don’t just include having it all; she wants all of it on a strict deadline.
The Pleasure of His Company by Samuel Taylor Skinner and Cornelia Otis Skinner
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Darko Tresnjak; cast: Sab Shimono, Patrick Page, Erin Chambers, Ellen Karas, Jim Abele, Ned Schmidtke, Matt Biedel; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Fabio Toblini; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through August 10; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-232-5623.