Smug Harbor

There is quite a difference between cute, which is mostly positive, and cutesy, which is entirely negative. Yet the dividing line is so fine that Julia Dahl, the author and director of Wonderland, seems blithely unaware of it. Hers is a civilized and sophisticated play about an affluent Sag Harbor family and friends on “New Year’s Day in the mid-nineties.” Not, as you’d think, the present, because the president, for whom one of the characters works, has not yet fallen from grace. To think that our fin de siècle may subdivide into B.M. and A.M., with M., of course, standing for Monica.

The elderly Henry’s house is presently shared by his twentyish daughter, Frances, back from an unedifying sojourn on the Coast (the other one). Her elder brother, Edgar, is visiting with his fiancée, Josephine, an ambitious young woman guiding his campaign for Congress. Also coming are two of Frances’s young men: Dennis, a George Stephanopoulos type, and Charlie, a classic hippie, complete with guitar, raffish hair, and manners manqué.

This might have been a tolerable feast despite Frances’s tergiversations between antithetical admirers – indeed, in Dennis’s case, a suitor – with only the brat’s jealous intolerance of the admittedly officious Josephine making things hairy. A tomboy with literary ambitions, Frances is especially hard on Dennis, who, however, can handle her until stumblebum Charlie proves a stumbling block. Then Frances commits a violent acte gratuit that wreaks havoc in a house until then divided chiefly by comparatively harmless politics.

While Wonderland sticks to drawing-room comedy, it does nicely enough teetering between cuteness and cutesiness. But when the going gets serious, it seems insufficiently motivated, calling into question even some of the foregoing. Yet much of the dialogue is funny or relevant, though not enough so to make the characters especially careable-about.

Perhaps the author should not have directed as well. Is it she who made three of the actors annoyingly precious or obvious? Or is it the actors themselves? Paul Fitzgerald’s Edgar is irritatingly mannered; Brad Beyer’s Charlie, a walking anthology of hippiedom, inconsistently fluctuating between obtuseness and perception; and Christine Marie Burke’s Frances, a case of terminal cutes, some of it, to be sure, warranted by the writing. Conversely, Henry Strozier’s Henry is rightly both canny old codger and self-absorbed duffer; Kate Jennings Grant perfectly finds the vulnerability under Josephine’s chill efficiency; and James Patrick Stuart’s Dennis displays virtuoso variety in what might have been a one-note part.

Add good scenery and costumes by Beowulf Boritt (a name requiring much living up to), and you have an evening of reasonably fluent theater until you start wondering what Wonderland is really about. Miss Dahl is not without skill and savvy; what she now needs is a subject.

Smug Harbor