Christopher Fry’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s L’Invitation au château as Ring Round the Moon consists mostly of cutting, changing the name of Horace into Hugo, and a few quaint substitutions. Where Anouilh wrote “pink as a flower,” Fry has “pink as a strawberry,” though strawberries are properly red. Perhaps, despite Fry’s pleasing adaptation, Anouilh’s original should, if possible, be read.
The play falls into the third of the three categories Anouilh divides his plays into: “Brilliant,” and thus meant to dazzle. It concerns Isabelle, a charming dancer from the Opéra’s corps de ballet, who has been invited to a ball at rich old Mme. Desmermortes’s chateau by the wheelchair-bound crone’s nephew, Hugo. A dashing but thoroughly amoral youth, Hugo wants Isabelle to break up what he considers the unsuitable engagement of the wealthy and headstrong Diana Messerschmann to his identical twin, Frederic. Identical at skin level only; Frederic is timid, decent, and capable of romantic passion, and thus the exact opposite of Hugo, who senses that it is really for himself that Diana is pining.
Her billionaire father, Messerschmann, a former Jewish tailor from Kraków, can buy everything, perhaps even his daughter’s happiness, but not his own: His weak stomach can keep down only noodles – without butter and salt! Nor, as he knows, can he keep down his mistress, Lady Dorothy India, who is betraying him with his slippery secretary, Patrice Bombelles. Isabelle arrives accompanied by her silly and pretentious mother and Romainville, a middle-aged roué and friend of Mme. Desmermortes. He must pass off Isabelle as his niece, though he really wants her for his mistress.
Mme D. likes to pull strings, and uses her pallid lady’s companion, the spinster Capulat, as her factotum. Hugo, the other string-puller, relies on the services of the faithful retainer, Joshua. But finally, it is fate that proves even better at pulling strings, though here, unlike in many Anouilh plays, it lets things end amicably. Needed is a delicately gauged production, balancing dreamy fairy-tale atmosphere with satirical bite. But the director, Gerald Gutierrez, spends all his invention on managing the rapid exits and entrances of the one actor who must play both antithetical twins. The mischief is either too muted or heavily underlined; the froth is missing altogether.
The English actor Toby Stephens makes a somewhat flabby, undashing Hugo, and a rather too sappy, yokelish Frederic. But he has two things going for him: Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, his famous parents. Gretchen Egolf is a handsome, well-spoken Isabelle, but without a dancer’s lightness and lyricism, as she towers over most of the men around her. As Mme. D., Marian Seldes, for all her good timing and general savvy, lacks aristocratic hauteur and bounces around in her wheelchair as if it were a mere prop.
The others are largely misdirected by Gutierrez, who cannot even convey that a grand ball is in progress. Especially misled are Candy Buckley, Joyce Van Patten, Fritz Weaver (former Jewish tailor, not Old Testament prophet), and Haviland Morris (a caricature Diana in a beastly gown by John David Ridge). Richard Clarke comes off best as the manservant Joshua, but this is not supposed to be a play in which the butler did it all.