Friend or Foe

Illustration by Henry JansonPhoto: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

If the Roundabout’s new revival of Old Acquaintance were terrible, I wouldn’t mind it so much. In John van Druten’s 1940 comedy, two writers—lifelong friends on opposite ends of the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum—find some laughs as they duel over the loyalty of one of their daughters and explore such knotty questions as whether having two lovers by age 27 makes a girl a whore. When the show wrested my attention back from more interesting subjects—What if Tony Blair ran for the Senate? Do I smell French fries?—I saw little that went awry. Sure, Margaret Colin, who plays the vivacious, bohemian Kit, could use some more bubbles in her Champagne, but if you can see only one actress crawl out of the room clutching a bottle of Scotch this summer, make it Harriet Harris, who’s inspired as the rich, daffy Mildred.

It’s all very competent, professional, and, to me, maddening. If a theater is a box that can take you anywhere and do anything, how come we keep ending up in the same handsome apartment (curving staircase, gold brocade, drinks cart) in the same handsome clothes (silk and chinchilla—except for the maid, obviously)? All-out flops aren’t dangerous: You can usually laugh and forget them before the entrées arrive. These lukewarm evenings, though, which manage to bore you without doing much wrong, and have no particular reason to be onstage, make the whole business seem senescent. They call to mind the anguished cry of Homer Simpson, who, on a visit to a zoo full of indolent animals, wailed, “I’ve seen plays that were more exciting than this. Honest to God—plays!

Lucky for us, summer has brought two plays that actually are exciting, in their very different ways. At the ever-enterprising Mint, director Jonathan Bank has unearthed St. John Hankin’s 1905 comedy The Return of the Prodigal. How could a play this funny and obnoxious have gone a century without being staged in New York? It relocates the parable of the prodigal son to the home of an English industrialist, adding a lively twist: Young Eustace turns out to have the work ethic of Ferris Bueller and the moral compass of Kenny Lay.

What follows is two hours of bickering, extortion, and social critique. As Eustace’s family toys with the un-biblical notion of kicking his slacker ass out, he reminds them that Father’s political ambitions and Brother’s society romance would be ruined by the scandal. Eustace owes his sly charm to the terrific Roderick Hill, a pallid blond with a wardrobe full of loungewear and a wicked gleam in his eye: Beck as a bond trader. In my favorite scene, Eustace flirts with his brother’s girl by sharing the social-Darwinist view that the poor must suffer and die so the rich can thrive. “How horrible,” she cries. “Yes,” he says, plucking a flower from his mother’s garden and presenting it to her with a smile, “but how necessary.”

The cool ironies that make The Return of the Prodigal so much fun are absent from Beyond Glory—wonderfully so. At the Roundabout’s Off Broadway space, Stephen Lang enacts stories of eight recipients of the Medal of Honor. All fought in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam; all showed a depth of courage that even now makes you gasp. Some led desperate battlefield charges, others kept their dignity as prisoners of war, still others risked their lives to protect their friends. (One soldier, stuck in a foxhole and pelted by grenades, had no choice but to bat them back with a shovel before they landed, “like DiMaggio or something.”)

Thick-armed, with close-cropped silver hair, Lang doesn’t look the type to flit sensitively in and out of eight characters who feel pride, anger, and every kind of pain. But under Robert Falls’s direction, the performance is admirably graceful (even if it’s fifteen minutes too long). His adaptation of Larry Smith’s book is sincere, respectful, and completely anomalous in a milieu that hasn’t exhausted itself celebrating American soldiers lately. All the more reason to be glad it’s here.

Old Acquaintance
By John van Druten. Roundabout Theatre Company. Through August 19.

The Return of the Prodigal
By St. John Hankin. Mint Theater Company. Through July 15.

Beyond Glory
By Stephen Lang. Roundabout Theatre Company. Through August 19.

Friend or Foe