Gut Renovations: Playwright David Auburn Reinvents The New York Idea

Rachel Syme | January 31st, 2011

Jaime Ray Newman and Jeremy Shamos in "The New York Idea" (Photo by Ari Mintz)

There would be no New York without the concept of constant, churning reinvention. Out of necessity, we gussy up old structures, pull the skin taught, and gleefully scaffold everything we know. We hang shiny new garlands off creaking Dutch skeletons and call it progress. Almost everything in the city can and will be remade — styles, tenements, train stations, families — and yet, there is one small cultural corner that has long resisted the standard New York facelift: Theatrical comedies of manners. Most people don’t associate petticoats and high tea — presented for 90 minutes in a small jewel box — with innovation.

When it comes to this particular (and yes, often delightful!) theatrical niche, most ticket-holders know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up for their lumpy red velvet seat: The sheer visual delight of women in bone corsets and men in tweed riding britches, and at best, a light, sparkling Sunday afternoon watching doors opening and closing. In my experience, culturally-engaged matinee ladies like nothing quite so much as a butler entering a drawing room at an inopportune moment — except perhaps, equestrian humor and/or a buxom French maid who coos pearls of comic relief with a feather duster in hand.

The Atlantic Theater Company’s revival of Langdon Mitchell’s The New York Idea (dir. Mark Brokaw), currently playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, has all of these things, including: colonial jokes about Egypt, clucky old women in cardigans with cameo brooches, a healthy number of punchlines about a Sargeant portrait, and declarations like “I dislike Italians and I don’t care for common people, any more than I care for common cats.” Which is to say — it would be easy to write the play off as the kind of stodgy, antiquated fare that resists true re-imagination, and that you only care to see before dinner. After all, BBC America comes standard with most Time Warner packages these days. It is entirely possible to indulge in upstairs-downstairs hijinx while wearing a slanket.

But then, what would a show about “the New York idea” — the very core of what we believe as a city — be without a wink to our knockdown-turnaround mentality? And in fact, David Auburn, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright commissioned to rewrite Mitchell’s original script, has done more than wink at it. He has done something that I previously thought impossible; he has made 1907 sound like 2011, without sacrificing language, character, or the butler.

“I thought of it more as a gut renovation,” Auburn told Fourth Wall, speaking from his Manhattan apartment. “I started building the play from scratch, and approached it as a new work.”

Maybe this is how a revival should be done — slashing the original material down to its essence and killing one’s darlings. There is a reason that The Atlantic extended The New York Idea for two whole weeks even before opening night (well, besides a glowing Times profile of Auburn). It’s the first crusty, yellowing old play in some time to be made wholly new; the material has been doused in fresh water. The revival’s theme is similar to the original: that the “New York idea” of relationships is that there is no constancy, flux being built into the big city. But Auburn has taken this concept from something taboo to something celebratory, in a few short moves.

Mitchell’s original play was a hit when it debuted in London in 1907, and though different in tone, carried much the same premise as the new version: Two divorcees, the staid judge Phillip Philimore (expert straight man Michael Countryman) and the beautiful, young Cynthia Karslake (played with spritely energy by the wonderful Jaime Ray Newman), are preparing to marry one another. The spectre of ugly divorce is ever-present, as are the lovers’ ex-spouses: the bankrupt gambler John Karslake (Jeremy Shamos), and the worldly, bawdy Vida Philimore. In Mitchell’s version of the story, divorce is seen as the ultimate social mistake — it is the characters’ deep flaws that cause their marriages to dissolve, and they are all more or less unhappy because of it. “He thought of the play as an argument against easily obtained divorce and the dangers of it,” Auburn says of Mitchell. “In the original, Cynthia is freewheeling. John is more steady, the problem in the marriage is that Cynthia is so flighty that the slightest bump in the marriage.”

Mitchell’s play, as Auburn suggests, that the young, beautiful Karslake ran away from her husband not because he was a wrong fit, but because she was of uneven spirit — a flight risk. Her character was drawn (and thinly so) as a flake, a puff of hot air; one of the play’s matriarch’s describes her “a ‘sporty’ woman.” One of Auburn’s big changes was to pump new blood into Cynthia: In the new version, she has not run away from her sturdy marriage on a fickle spree; rather, she departed a situation that was simply not working. She becomes self-protective as opposed to whimsical. “In the original John doesn’t understand why his marriage ended. Cynthia just…leaves. That’s where I thought we need to try something different,” says Auburn.

In a late scene in Auburn’s recasting, John gets his answers. When pressed as to why his young love walked out, she breaks down. “You don’t know how to make a woman happy! Not for long,” she says. “Oh you’re quick out of the gate and splendid round the turns but you fade in the home stretch because you’ve no idea what’s in our hearts or heads, or who we really are, because you don’t know who you are.” The way Newman and Shamos play this scene, with the raw tension of love and pain of the recently split, it feels more like a heart-wrenching moment from Blue Valentine than dusty drawing room dialogue.

Auburn forces the play into a modern clip this way. It is not only a women’s inconstancy that causes emotional distress; it’s the inability for anyone, male or female, in a society strictly confined and full of expectations, to determine who they really are, or what they really want.

In Mitchell’s script, women are dangerous. Take Vida, the judges’ ex-wife with a penchant for long cigarette holders and exotic kimonos. She’s a schemer, a woman who hunts down adventure like a member of the explorer’s club. She wears turbans. She is also an outcast, a divorcee. She trots off to Cairo for pleasure and receives buckets of flowers from gentlemen she has met once.

Like Cynthia, the men in Mitchell’s play tend to vilify Vida’s choices — this desire to “marry for whim, the New York idea of marriage.” One taste of freedom, Mitchell writes, and they become monsters in party hats. As the disapproving Uncle Sudley says to Lady Philamore, they represent “the uncouth modern female, the gruesome “Gibson girl,” with a cigarette in one hand and motoring goggles in the other –an habitué of the race track and the divorce court.”

Auburn keeps in this disapproval, but skewers it with comic underpinning — the men are equally dysfunctional, if not more so, in his new world. “All of the characters are really just scrambling to figure out how to behave,” Auburn says. “The two central women in the play are terrific characters and surprising to people in their iconoclasm. I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted to make them stronger.”

“What the play became about for me, at the core, is rule breakers, and people who abide by the rules. Cynthia and her ex, John, are less comfortable abiding by those rules. They are vacillating between throwing off constraints and submitting to them, never quite on the same page. And Vida, well, she thinks of herself as this outrageous rebel, but really she is just as desperate to conform in certain ways as everyone else is. There is good stuff in the original, but I was trying to write her as a young Lady Bracknell; this completely artificial, self-possessed, person who is amusing herself constantly.”

The idea of “taking liberties” with someone else’s words is often seen as a bad thing — only rarely is a remake, remix, or mash-up, better than the source. But in a show that is about liberty and the freedom to reinvent, it was a justified risk. And for Auburn, who needed a boost (since Proof won the Tony and Pulitzer, he has been working quietly on an HBO show and a new commission for MTC), getting to tangle up someone else’s creation proved to be the kick he needed. “I took on the play at a time when I was struggling with another play that was complicated and serious, the dog days,” he says. “It was completely refreshing, to break it down. I really just wanted to write something to put on in the dead of winter that is just fun, brisk, old but new. Like New York itself.”

“In my view, the real New York idea is constant self upheaval,” says Auburn. “Everyone here has an opportunity to write their own rules. As John says in the show, our customs are being invented anew at an hourly rate.”

So here’s to new customs, a new theater column, the old becoming new again. Other revivalists, take note. A gut renovation may be your best option.