Another anemic, flat, mediocre revival

By Scott Harrah

“Youth” ages poorly, leaves Hyde Pierce unscathed

David Hyde Pierce is the only noteworthy aspect of this otherwise mediocre revival of Samson Raphaelson’s 1934 play. Pierce is playwright Steven Gaye, a 50-something man with a string of hit comedies who is struggling to write his first drama and falling for his young assistant, Linda Brown (Mary Catherine Garrison).

The show has lots of snappy dialogue and quips, but director Daniel Sullivan cannot conceal the fact that this story is seriously dated.  Any revival of a play loaded with literary mothballs sometimes needs a new spin to make it work for modern audiences, but there’s no twist here.  What was considered almost screwball comedy in 1934 doesn’t translate well in 2009, and comes across as nothing less than a theatrical anachronism.

In addition, the cast performs at such a slow pace, much of Raphaelson’s witty material is simply wasted.  The actors play everything so straight that most of the jokes simply get lost and evoke few laughs. Act one is mildly amusing, but the remainder of the show is downright dull.

David Hyde Pierce, best known for his dry, deadpan delivery and haughty elegance as Niles Crane on TV’s “Frasier,” is perfect as divorced playwright Steven Gaye. He has all the nuances of his dapper character down. Unfortunately, there’s zero chemistry between him and the miscast Mary Catherine Garrison. Their scenes together, which should be full of farcical zest and repartee, are anemic and flat.

Garrison delivers her lines by rote, with no concept of proper characterization, and has trouble segueing from Steven’s secretary in act one to a stage actress later in the show. The transformation isn’t believable, despite Jane Greenwood’s glamorous costumes. She’s supposed to help inspire him to write a play about a man falling in love with a much younger woman, but Garrison — who was first-rate in such recent revivals as Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls”— simply doesn’t have the acting chops for this demanding role. Other cast members are also less than stellar. Rosie Benton, as Genevieve Lang, is mostly serviceable as a diva-like actress who is about to head off to Europe with Steven.

There is some genuine talent here, most notably former “Murphy Brown” star and Tony nominee Charles Kimbrough as the hilarious butler Flodgell, David Furr as matinee idol Dickie Reynolds, and aging thespian and hard drinker Frank Galloway (Byron Jennings). Unfortunately, Sullivan directs everyone as if they are one-dimensional caricatures of Broadway actors from yesteryear.  

Visually, the play is also disappointing. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty’s drab set, complete with dark wood paneling, fails to evoke the art deco glitz of 1930s New York. The set is a poor anchor for a period piece like this, and looks more like a law firm or accountant’s office than a swank apartment of a successful playwright from the era.

There are indeed some mildly humorous moments involving an Indian wrestling match, and Jennings in a slapstick drunk scene; but they offer far too little comic relief from this otherwise sleep-inducing production.