One-Trick Warhorse

John van Druten is enjoying a mini-revival this season in New York. The Mint Theater has staged his 1931 play London Wall, a glorious rediscovery typical of the Mint's work, and the Roundabout is producing a revival of Cabaret, based on van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (itself drawn from the Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood). The Transport Group’s production of I Remember Mama, van Druten’s 1944 play that introduced Marlon Brando to the theater (as son Nels) thus seems to arrive at an opportune time. Unfortunately, it proves disappointing.

Jack Cumming III’s production features 10 actresses playing all the roles. All are over 50, and several a decade or two older than that. Although their credentials are impeccable, and their abilities are undimmed, the concept of casting looks more like a calling card for producers to notice how talented and underused the performers are. The gimmick puts one in mind of the classic skit in Beyond the Fringe where a one-legged actor clomps into an audition for the part of Tarzan. A suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but there are some obstacles that are insurmountable.

When Phyllis Somerville enacts Dagmar, the youngest daughter of a Norwegian family living in San Francisco circa 1910, one notices the physical agility of the gray-haired actress more than the character’s journey. When the marvelous Lynn Cohen inhabits either of her two male roles—Uncle Chris and the ne’er do-well boarder Mr. Hyde—one strains to envision the petite actress with the long disheveled hair as a man, and, in the case of Uncle Chris, a figure who inspires fear. Age may not wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety, but it (along with the gender-bending) is a distraction to seeing the characters whole.

The actresses who come off best play closer to their real ages. Barbara Andres is Mama, and she is terrific: serious, skeptical, guiding, loving, agonizing. Among her three sisters is Rita Gardner (the original Girl in The Fantasticks back in 1960), playing middle-aged Aunt Trina. Their other sisters, Alice Cannon as the stern Aunt Jenny and Susan Lehman as caviling Aunt Sigrid, are fine (though all three aunts occasionally double as younger supporting characters) as well, albeit on the far side of middle age.

Perhaps Cummings’s casting was meant to refocus attention on an old warhorse, although this warhorse is so rarely staged that it cries out for a straightforward rendering. Van Druten’s play is one of those heartfelt family sagas that used to be a staple of theater. Its heroine is a young female writer growing up as a first-generation American in an immigrant family. The warmth, gentle humor, character quirks and small-town observations are of the same order as The Andy Griffith Show. It begins as a memory play, with the writer in advanced age, Katrin, played by the superb Barbara Barrie, quoting her published work, then stepping into her story to play herself at 18.

Dane Laffrey’s striking scenic design transforms the Gym at Judson into a rectangular playing area with the audience at the perimeter. Concept also prevails here: inside the area are 10 different dining tables, each with a particular focus. There is a writer’s table with drafts and typewriters for Katrin; a table covered with recipe boxes for Mama; a table full of letters where Nels (Heather MacRae) sits; and books on the table representing the educated Mr. Hyde’s room in the boarding house.

Once you figure out who is playing who—and it takes awhile—there are scenes that are quite moving, as when Mama pretends to scrub hospital floors to visit Dagmar, who has had an operation and must not be visited for 24 hours, according to hospital rules, or when Mama learns a hard truth about her boarder. The second half moves along better than the first, probably because it’s easier to follow the story. But the effect is still of a gilt-edged staged reading. The unorthodox casting puts up too many barriers to serve van Druten’s play well.

I Remember Mama will play through April 20, with evening performances at 7 p.m.Wednesday and Thursday (but 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 17) and at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets go up to $69 and may be obtained by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting transportgroup.org.

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