Colonial Players bills the World War II drama Watch On the Rhine as the first in their American Standard series, “presented for the nostalgia of older audiences or introduction to younger patrons.” As winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 1941, this play would seem a good choice. It has star appeal: The hit film featured Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, who won an Oscar for Best Actor. It is historically compelling: A call to arms for a pre-war America grown complacent in the face of global discord. It smacks of scandal: Dramatist Lillian Hellman was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of her membership in the Communist Party.
Yet for all its relevance and fine execution, this two-and-a-half-hour golden oldie feels moldy.
Commenting on social conventions among the Roosevelt era’s upper middle-class, the play revels in trite gossip and quotidian trivia. It opens with irascible Fanny Farrelly (CeCe McGee-Newbrough), the widowed matriarch of a suburban D.C. mansion, preparing for the arrival of her daughter Sara (Theresa Riffle), whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years, along with Sara’s German husband, Kurt Muller (John Coe), and their children Joshua (Eli Pendry), Babette (Katie McMorrow) and Bodo (Andrew Sharpe).
By way of preparation, Fanny barks orders to her butler, Joseph (Daniel M. Lopez II) and her live-in housekeeper, Anise (Mary MacLeod). She badgers her bachelor son David (Benjamin Wolff) about every aspect of his life that falls short of the standard set by his late father. She discusses with her houseguests, Count Teck de Brancovis of Romania (Timothy Sayles) and his young wife Marthe (Shannon Benil) such pressing issues as the weather, menus, jewelry and the social aspects of ambassadorial life. When she finally meets her son-in-law and grandchildren for the first time, it is with left-handed compliments and outright insults veiled as teasing. One understands why Sara stayed away for two decades.
For one mind-numbing hour, we learn little more than the fact that the Mullers are impoverished and itinerant because of Kurt’s anti-Fascist work … that the Count and Countess are equally but secretly penniless … that Marthe is unhappy in her marriage … and that David is perhaps interested in her.
The goldplate on their civility tarnishes when Teck rifles Kurt’s luggage for clues to his mysterious background. Teck, as it turns out, is an opportunistic aristocratic who know that Kurt is wanted for political crimes against the Nazi party. Being a gentleman, however, he offers to forget he ever saw Kurt in exchange for $10,000 hush money. Feeling that he must return home to save the lives of three colleagues, Kurt takes the blackmail into his own lawless hands and bids a tearful goodbye to his family. Fanny is left to cope with the realization that her world is no longer the safe cocoon she supposed it to be.
Despite the play’s slow start, when the action finally comes, it explodes like a grenade. Meanwhile, the cast works hard to push their characters beyond their stodgy trappings. McGee-Newbrough brings a mix of condescension and compassion to her dowager widow. Sayles makes a suave and ominous villain. Wolff is the perfect put-upon eldest child, and Benil evokes our compassion as the embittered child bride. MacLeod is so comfortable as the long-time maid that she feels like family. As for the more sympathetic Mullers, Coe and Riffle blend a feeling of genuine affection with an air of mystery, while the children are models of comportment and cosmopolitan sophistication.
The exquisite set features period antiques and a console radio that croons big-band swing. The costumes are sumptuous with gowns in moiré, chiffon and lace, and the men wear silk smoking jackets as they puff on their fruity pipes. The nostalgic trappings are so nice that they almost make one yearn for that simpler, more elegant time. Almost.
In an era of sound bites where life is cheap both at home and abroad, this show may try your patience rather than keep you engaged. There are, however, exceptions: History buffs, amateur sociologists and enthusiasts of black-and-white cinematic classics will find this morality tale interesting.
Director: Terry Averill. Set designer: David Pindell. Sound: Sarah Wade. Lights: Matthew Shogren. Costumes: Bonnie Persinger. Fight choreographer: Mark Allen.
Playing thru Mar. 21: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Mar. 8): Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.