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The Seven Year Itch

Here’s a prime example of the value of having The American Century Theater in our community – the chance to experience one of those plays that are part of our common cultural heritage but which are rarely given competent professional productions. The Seven Year Itch was made into a movie and it is that movie, with Marilyn Monroe no less, that is so well remembered. Its author, George Axelrod, became well known for light comedies both on the stage (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) and on screen (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). This play was his first hit and, as such, was almost always appended to adds or reviews of his later works . . . as in ”George Axelrod, author of The Seven Year Itch, will adapt Bus Stop for the screen.”  Yet the original, despite a run on Broadway of nearly three years, has never been revived. 

Storyline: With his wife and child off to the shore for the summer, but a job that keeps him in their downtown apartment during the work week, a husband of seven years fantasizes about having a fling with a young woman who is apartment sitting in the unit above. The scenes in his head combine with actual events as his fantasies and his fears merge.

 Axelrod’s script does one thing better than it is done almost anywhere else and that is to use the technique of having a character talk to himself in order to explain the plot to the audience. The script’s alternation between reality and fantasy is made both understandable and believable because we can know just what this man is thinking because he verbalizes everything. It is a writers dream, but it can be an actor’s nightmare. Unless, of course, the actor has the skill to pull it off. Christopher Brophy has the skill and, as a result, it works.

 The two women in his life, Maura McGinn as his wife and Amy Quiggins as the girl in the apartment upstairs, are actually four characters as each exists both in reality and in his imagination. These are complicated parts for the actresses, in part because some of the humor in the comedy is based on not letting the audience know immediately if a scene is reality or is taking place in Brophy’s character’s mind.  McGinn makes the most of the gap between fantasy and reality through posture, body language and attitude. Quiggins uses the youthful sexuality of the real neighbor as a starting point for the fantasy character. Among supporting characters, Joe Cronin creates a very funny Viennese doctor and John C. Bailey is suitably oily as seen through the eyes of the husband in his fantasy world.

 The design team deserves extra credit for restraint and subtlety. It would be so tempting to draw too much attention to the difference between fantasy and reality. But they don’t go beyond serving the script, don’t over do an effect.  The movie version was the source of those photos of Marilyn Monroe with her white halter top dress blown up by a blast of wind. Here Quiggins, with dark hair rather than blond, has a picture-perfect red confection and a number of other right-on outfits provided by costume designer Michele Reisch.

 Written by George Axelrod. Directed by DeAnna Duncan. Design: Eric Grims (set and lights) Michele Reisch (costume) Brian Mac Ian (sound). Cast: Chris Brophy, Maura McGinn, Amy Quiggins, Joe Cronin, John C. Bailey, Sheila Cutchlow, Anna Lane, Danielle Davy, Paula Phipps, Philip Saphos.


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Washington Post

'Seven-Year Itch' Rubs the Right Way

By Dolores Whiskeyman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 31, 2002; Page C01

Here's a formula for disaster: Bored husband, left alone when wife and child go off to the beach, is distracted by pretty young woman in neighboring apartment. Fantasies ensue. Husband longs for chance to try out rusty lovemaking skills.

Now the formula bends toward comedy: Young woman is surprisingly unoffended by man's clumsy advances.

So goes George Axelrod's "The Seven-Year Itch," a 1952 domestic satire now receiving a production by the American Century Theater, the company dedicated to the staging of classic and neglected plays from the American canon.

A huge stage hit in its day, "The Seven-Year Itch" is indelibly associated not with Broadway but with Marilyn Monroe, who starred in the film version. You know the scene: Marilyn steps on a subway grate to cool down and her white skirt billows famously to her waist, giving her blissful co-star Tom Ewell -- and the rest of us -- a glimpse of her panties. It's an iconic moment, the kind of image that is unbendable. Billowing white skirts. Marilyn Monroe. "The Seven-Year Itch."

Given all that, you wonder: What is to be gained by producing this play? The answer, surprisingly, is: quite a bit.

Under the direction of DeAnna Duncan, "The Seven-Year Itch" proves itself remarkably fresh and funny, and a lot edgier than the film. The character played by Monroe is written not as a blond bimbo, but as a rather crafty young woman who plays an active role in her own seduction. Amy Quiggins, a petite brunette, plays her as more sweet than calculating, but the characters' thought processes (Axelrod gives us access via their fantasies) advance a complex study in moral equivocation. After all, when the object of desire is not an obviously irresistible sexpot like Monroe but a seemingly "nice" girl with a mind of her own, that changes the equation considerably. It also makes the negotiation much more interesting.

Eric Grims's lackluster set can't be said to enhance the experience (this seems to be a recurring problem with this theater company, organized to stage such technically demanding plays), but it doesn't detract from it either. Even so, what the production lacks in set design, it makes up in the casting.

The master stroke: Chris Brophy as the errant husband, Richard Sherman.

It's a physically demanding role (the character is onstage the entire evening) and requires an actor who can hit the right blend of buffoonery and chicanery. Brophy pulls it off, rendering Sherman funny and endearing even as he equivocates himself into one corner after another.

A physical comedian with a gift for milking the most humor out of the slightest moment, Brophy finds his match in Maura McGinn as his wife, Helen, a woman who knows more than she's willing to let on, and in Joe Cronin as a somber German psychiatrist. The good doctor's academic tome has been repackaged by Sherman's publishing house as the more marketable "Of Sex and Violence," a plot device that Cronin works gleefully for all the shtick it can muster. And there's plenty of it -- helping to explain why this play ran for 1,141 performances on Broadway.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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Washington Post

Scratching the 'Seven Year' Musical Itch
"The Seven Year Itch" Through Jan. 25

By Dan Via
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 27, 2002; Page WE24

"THE SEVEN Year Itch" takes us into the mind of a married man, circa 1955. Richard (Christopher Brophy) is white. He's pushing 40. And he's not nearly the suave, swinging sophisticate he fancies himself to be. All of which brings us to the obvious question: What kind of music would he choose to underscore his life?

Okay, so that might not be the first question to come to mind. It was, however, the major issue facing sound designer Brian Mac Ian. "I'm very particular when it comes to dramaturgically correct music," he says. "If I'm going to do period, I want to do period to the T. I tried to choose music that I thought white Americans would listen to, that was played on the radio then."

Radio in the 1950s was notoriously segregated, with the likes of Pat Boone and Doris Day crooning bland, grit-free versions of jazz and R&B for the white masses. Mac Ian seized on that divide as a means of highlighting the character's limits. "I tried to make him as insular and WASPy as possible."

Some of Richard's ultra-square taste comes through in his onstage turntable selections. It also provides the soundtrack for his imagination. For example, appearances by Richard's wife (Maura McGinn), either in flashback or paranoid fantasy, are given appropriately white-bread musical accompaniments. Director DeAnna Duncan is a "big fan of underscoring and I think it really worked well," says Mac Ian. "For the scene where Richard gets shot by his wife, I found this [Web] site that has this schmaltzy, feel-good music from the '50s and they had a song called 'Plink, Plank, Plunk.' Very 'Leave It to Beaver'-esque."

Though Mac Ian says his CD collection is both extensive and eclectic, "Plink Plank Plunk" is not the kind of thing he'd have lying around. Fortunately, music aficionados of all stripes are creating online libraries, opening up a virtual world of possibilities for a resourceful (and patient) sound designer. Using the Google search engine, Mac Ian says, "I put in 'happy music' or something like that, and you have to go through all these other variations of retro music sites, but then I found one that had all this old, uplifting, positive music. It was perfect."

Mac Ian advises would-be music seekers: "When you're looking on the Net, you don't want to put in words that are derogatory. If you go to a site where people really love this music, they're going to have a bevy of stuff and want to share it," he says. "But if you put in 'corny' or 'schmaltzy' you might find just two or three songs because people are making fun of it."

Of his music selection process, Mac Ian says, "I just go out and get as much as I can and narrow it down." The one place he was not tempted to look for inspiration was the 1955 movie version of "The Seven Year Itch" starring Marilyn Monroe as the billowy-skirted object of Richard's roving eye. "No temptation whatsoever," Mac Ian asserts. "I'm an actor as well, and one of the things I try to avoid at all costs is influence from movies for characters or for music. I could sit here and say, 'Oh, I could watch it and disregard it,' but I don't want to take that chance. It's fun to do something fresh."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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