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Potomac Stages

The Second Man
A Potomac Stages Pick

Thanks to The American Century Theater, another gem of America’s tremendous twentieth century accomplishments in popular culture is back on a stage where it belongs. S. N. Behrman’s 1927 Broadway hit, the first in a string of literate comedies for grownups with its sparkling dialogue, its seamless structure and its cast of sharply defined characters, makes one wonder how such a piece could ever have passed out of frequent production. Surely it wasn’t that audiences stopped appreciating such engrossing entertainment. No, the secret is that the rest of the century produced so much popular entertainment for the stage, the screen, radio, television, computer games and wide-screen/high-definition video that there was always something new to distract attention from everything but the rarefied best or most successful. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But there is certainly nothing wrong with The Second Man either, as this superb production proves.

Storyline: A writer needs to marry a rich woman to support his life style but is intrigued by a younger, more exciting girl who happens to be the object of one of his less worldly friends’ affection. The friend, a nerd of a physicist, wants very much to marry the girl but she’s intrigued by the writer. In one afternoon and evening over drinks, the relationships between the four ebb, flow and disintegrate.

Steven Scott Mazzola directs this comedy of manners in the round with all the flair and style it was obviously intended to receive. The pace is always lively but never excessive and the dialogues, as bright and inventively humorous as they are, seem to stem from the events. Rarely is there a feeling that the story has paused for a quip or a clever observation. There are lots of quips and many clever observations but they all seem just right for the character and the moment in the story.

Of course, the fact that Mazzola cast four actors who have a felicity for comic exchanges helps a great deal. The lynchpin of the quartet is Bruce Alan Rauscher as the writer. It is always a pleasure to watch Rauscher in action. He has the ability to display the thought process of his character as clearly as any actor working in the region right now, and can toss off a flip riposte with the best of them. It is his ability to listen to the others on stage that is most impressive. You can see his character processing what he is hearing. It is a crucial skill for this part for all three of the other characters are in his orbit.

Those others are a talented trio indeed. Maura McGinn is elegantly striking as the wealthy socialite who would be the solution to the author’s financial woes, and Amy Quiggins exudes the sexuality of the prototypical 1920’s liberated woman that so intrigues both the writer and the physicist. That physicist is Brian Childers whose very funny nerdish persona is something more than mere stereotype, with real human pain visible just under the surface. Together, these four deliver a marvelously entertaining evening.

Written by S. N. Behrman. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: Beth Baldwin (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marianne Meadows (lights) David Meyer (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Christine Wessels (stage manager). Cast: Brian Childers, Maura McGinn, Amy Quiggins, Bruce Alan Rauscher.

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redbox.gif - 47 BytesThe Sun Gazette Weekly

American Century Returns to 1920s Comedy

Staff Writer

With 25 works produced between 1924-64, playwright S.N. Behrman’s output was legendary, and the results – while mildly uneven in both critical reviews and box-office appeal – showed a staying power that, of a more recent generation of authors, only Arthur Miller and Neill Simon have equalled or surpassed.

But Behrman’s reputation faded quickly following his death in 1973, and an effort at resuscitating it failed eight seasons ago, when American Century Theater, producing one of the author’s minor works, flopped so badly (by artistic director Jack Marshall’s admission) that the theater company found itself on the brink of dissolution.

This time around, American Century has chosen more wisely. “The Second Man” ranks near the top of Behrman efforts, and the new production at Gunston Arts Center features strong acting and spirited pacing that make for a supremely entertaining evening of theater.

Expect no grand revelations or deeper meanings here. Like Phillip Barry, Behrman plumbed the upper classes for their comedic value, but his approach was conventional – the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

In “The Second Man” (1928), the story revolves around a third-rate writer but first-rate raconteur, Clark Storey, who after a three-year courtship seems set to marry the rich, stable widow Kendall, yet finds himself attracted to the younger, more wild Monica. Monica is obsessed with Storey, yet she is engaged to the rich and brilliant, if dull, scientist Austin. Austin is besotted with Monica, but by the second act may find himself pulled in the direction of Kendall.

Confused? You won’t be at the end, when everything is sorted out in a tidy package, but there are plenty of plot twists and turns, all set in Storey’s Manhattan apartment.

The plot is merely a vehicle for an evening of dialogue that remains snappy after 80 years. Storey and Monica have sharp tongues, but like Monica and Austin they seem to be generally decent people, making the interplay more of a fair fight.

The fun is in watching four American Century veterans go through their paces. Even on opening weekend, their performances were on-target and nuanced, with the in-the-round (more technically, in-the-square) setting providing a solid vehicle for the keep-’em-moving direction of Steven Scott Mazzola.

As Storey, Bruce Alan Rauscher brings a charm that has been seen in smaller doses in other American Century plays (Rauscher had the chance to yukk it up as Tim Conway during American Century’s spotty “Laughter at 10 O’Clock” homage to Carol Burnett earlier in the season). This time, it’s a star turn, and he succeeds in keeping his character edgy and yet still likeable.

Director Mazzola also gets the most out of Texas transplant Amy Quiggins as Monica, the tart-tongued flapper who thinks she knows what she wants, but remains torn between Storey’s magnetism and the security Austin would provide. Quiggins made an impression in American Century’s recent “The Seven-Year Itch,” and her reputation grows with this performance.

Maura McGinn brings her high-class style to the role of Kendall, adding a touch of humanity to what might otherwise be just a caricature of a character. And Brian Childers, ever so delicious as Danny Kaye in American Century’s standout “Danny and Sylvia,” is a nebbishy delight in the role of the introverted scientist who swoons whenever Monica’s name is mentioned.

As noted above, director Mazzola makes good use of Gunston II’s renovated but still small theater space. His square set is bordered by four audience risers. The action keeps moving and the actors are sharp.

Credit to costume designer Michele Reisch, whose efforts were understated but quite effective. Beth Baldwin’s set design and Marianne Meadows’ lighting design also aid the ambiance.

Sometimes, it seems, the theater world is just raining men. Don’t confuse “The Second Man” with Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” Albert Camus’ “The First Man,” Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” or . . . oh, the list goes on. For you aspiring playwrights, nobody seems to have latched on to the title “The Eighth Man,” at least not yet.

Eight seasons ago, American Century’s foray into S.N. Behrman territory was a costly one. The troupe took a second chance, making Behrman the first author whose works have been performed twice at American Century. It’s a gamble that has paid rich dividends.

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The Washington Post

The Drawing Room's Still Spiffy in American Century's 'Second Man'

By Dolores Gregory
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2003; Page C04

Ah, the perils of the leisure class! All that time, all that money. Is it any wonder the rich play love for sport and sport for love? So who can blame a clever social climber for negotiating his way into the arms of the wealthiest widow in the room? If only his eye didn't wander so in the direction of that comely young miss in the corner. You know the one I'm talking about -- Monica Grey -- that effervescent beauty whose only defect is the lack of a trust fund.

Such is the plot of "The Second Man," S.N. Behrman's witty romp through Upper West Side Manhattan, circa 1927. Now enjoying a brisk staging by the American Century Theater in Arlington, "The Second Man" centers on the efforts of penniless hack writer Clark Storey (Bruce Alan Rauscher) to resist the seductive Miss Grey in order to arrange a better, more lucrative match with the widowed Kendall Frayne. Storey thinks he's got it all worked out -- pushing Monica off onto a brilliant but bumbling scientist, Austin Lowe. But Monica, having accepted Austin's proposal, now has second thoughts and flies to Storey for confirmation that his secret wish is to marry her himself.

What follows is a merry-go-round of accusations, seductions, minor deceits, major betrayals and a massive breakdown, all put across through clever patter that requires -- and here receives -- a zippy pace to maintain the tension. Working in the round in Theatre Two at Gunston Arts Center, director Steven Scott Mazzola and his designers give us an intimate staging that serves the comedy well. Despite the occasional blocking problem, Mazzola showcases Behrman's talent for sophisticated froth. Such drawing room comedies about rattled aristocrats were once a the mainstay of American theater; the surprise of this production is how well Behrman's play holds up, 75 years later.

It's such a surprise, in fact, that one is willing to forgive the production's principal defect, which is Amy Quiggins's unfortunate rendering of the ingenue, Monica, as a squeaky-clean kid without a hint of sensuality or variation in tone. True, Quiggins is awfully cute in Michele Reisch's period costumes, but cute is not what Monica must be to account for the devastation she brings to the men in her orbit. The rest of the actors, however, provide sufficient ballast to compensate, particularly Brian Childers as Austin, who manages to be comic without becoming a caricature. Scenes between Childers and Rauscher crackle with energy, and Maura McGinn is aptly cast as Kendall Frayne. A solid performer, she provides the necessary colorations to bring interest to an underwritten part.

On the whole, the production makes a solid argument for American Century's manifesto to present neglected works of American writers. Behrman was once so popular a writer of highbrow comedy that he was termed "the American Noel Coward." Seeing "The Second Man," one wonders why Coward is not "the British S.N. Behrman."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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