"It was the old New York way … the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage…."
That's Edith Wharton's own summary of her 1921 novel, The Age of Innocence. Douglas McGrath's adaptation is now onstage at McCarter Theatre under Doug Hughes' direction, in a production that is both old-fashioned and opulent — and vacant — just as New York high society was at the turn of the century.
The show seems to be a Downton Abbey wannabe with American accents, although the plot is far less complex than anything in Downton. The central character is young Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), introduced to us by his older self (Boyd Gaines). And then there is an old, elegant Granny (Darrie Lawrence), matriarch of the family (think Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, without the bite). The cast is perfectly watchable and enjoyable, although there is no depth in either the acting or the script.
The plot traces Newland Archer's torment that followed from his falling in love with the Countess Olenska (Sierra Boggess) — a beautiful cousin of the prestigious New York family. She has just returned to America from a hellish marriage to a rich European brute. She is, of course, dressed in black, while May (Helen Cespedes), Archer's fiancée, is, of course, dressed in white (lovely costumes by Linda Cho). The question is whether anyone has the daring to act on their desires and thereby risk losing their reputations.
There are passionate embraces and heaving bosoms. There are glances from opera box to opera box. There is endless gossip. There are balls and dinner parties, making the set design a huge challenge John Lee Beatty meets handsomely. The Age of Innocence is, in two words, chick lit. Unlike her dear friend Henry James, whose theme was the corrupting influence of the European on the young American woman, a theme Wharton hints at in The Age of Innocence, she lacks the subtlety and stylistic rigor of the Master.
Music creates much of the show's romantic atmosphere; the twin scenes where each woman sings duets with Archer of "Beautiful Dreamer" are moving and revealing. Pianist Yan Li accompanies much of the show, adding, beautifully and lightly, to the drama.