Russ Hunt's Reviews

I Do! I Do!
by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

Theatre New Brunswick
April 2000

First things first. Theatre New Brunswick's new production of I Do! I Do! is solid, professional and entertaining. From Sheila Toye's serviceably lovely, gauze-hung and flexible set to the tightly choreographed and effective physical interplay between the two actors, from the fine piano accompaniment by the (unfortunately invisible) musical director, Jonathan Monro, to the finely-honed comic timing of both actors, the production expertly extracted sighs, laughs, and even an occasional hissing roar of disapproval from the warmly receptive opening night audience. Chris Saad's lighting was imaginative and nicely timed, Vera Coy's costumes -- and there were lots of them, as the characters moved from the 1890s to the 1940s -- were elegant and appropriate, and both the actors, Brian McKay as Michael and Melodee Finlay as Agnes -- did as well as I can imagine at reinventing roles originated by superstars like Mary Martin and Robert Preston.

Both actors were polished, clearly focused and professional. At the outset, the wedding, both were pretty clearly a lot older and more mature than the naively hopeful lines suggested, and the wedding night scene, with the confessions of ignorance about sex, were distinctly awkward (even though in the sixties we probably did believe that folks went to their marriages in complete innocence back in 1898, it was pretty difficult to believe these two fully mature people were in that situation). But as the characters matured, the actors found their stride and we began to find it more possible, as David Sherren had asked us to do in his pre-performance announcement, to suspend that pesky disbelief.

Musically, both occasionally had trouble with the range of some of the songs, and McKay's vibrato was frequently distracting; but the focus of I Do! I Do!, like a number of shows written in the mid-sixties as part of a mini-revolt against the traditional "big" musical, was past the songs, and on the way the songs arose out of character and situation, and voices that are less than superstar quality can carry the show off. More important was the snap and timing of the physical comedy and the lines, the skillful way, for instance, the couple moved from conversation to dance, or from repartee to song.

But in the end -- in fact, rather before the end -- I found myself strangely distanced from the play. I gradually discovered that I didn't actually care about either of these people in the slightest. When we discover that Michael is not only a buffoon, but also a completely insensitive male fascist pig (when Brian McKay declaimed lines like the one where Michael announces that she needs "to learn how to behave around a man of some importance" there was a hissing roar of hostility from the audience), somehow it didn't shift our sympathy to the long-suffering wife. I found myself admiring Melodee Finlay's open, enchantingly expressive face without being engaged with her Agnes at all (and when her response to his announcement that there's "another woman" was to go shopping, I wondered why we should be interested).

It was a surprise to find a show with the history and reputation of this one so unengaging. I Do! I Do! was a smash hit on Broadway in 1966, nominated for seven Tony Awards, and ran in various venues for years (not quite as long as the other show by Jones and Schmidt, The Fantasticks, but long enough to render it something of a classic). It's difficult, now, to see why.

Perhaps the problem can be seen in TNB's characterization of the play as about "marriage." It's not, it seems, about "a" marriage. It's designed to be general enough to resonate with anybody, to be about everybody's marriage. We don't learn enough about the characters and their relationship to make them unique -- and indeed, some of the things we do learn seem to be true in one scene and not in another. At one point Michael seems to be a hack writer of schlock romances; at another a serious, dedicated artist. At one point Agnes is a dedicated, housebound mom and at another asks, "Can't you see how I've grown?" -- and we can't [note].

Perhaps the problem is structural. This has been true of a number of TNB shows I've seen recently, and it may be my own hobbyhorse . . . but I don't feel sympathy and engagement are earned when a scene introduces an entirely new motif and asks the audience to do all the work of imagining how the motif may have been important in the past. They have children (in one scene she's pregnant twice), but the children disappear as concerns until they're needed later for a scene in which the son is late coming home from a new year's eve party. The show ends with a sentimental farewell to a house which has hardly been mentioned since the first lines of the play. And even within individual scenes, emotions or ideas are often waved at rather than enacted. In one scene, for instance, Michael suddenly announces that he's in love with another woman, and by the end of the scene all is reconciled. In another, she's smitten with a young writer who's courting her with appalling verse, and suddenly she's back in Michael's arms because he's given her a bracelet.

All these problems may be unavoidable in a play which attempts to span a half century of a relationship. Perhaps the largest difficulty is the lack of a plot to drive us forward: there's no arc of character development or connected events or even themes which keep us anticipating what might come next. When, at the end, as they leave to move out of the (suddenly precious) house, there's a contretemps over a pillow which they'd found on the bed when they moved in, fifty years earlier (it says, incongruously, "God Is Love"). The pillow, since it was there at the beginning, signals the end of the play -- but it feels entirely arbitrary that it should be that pillow or that slogan, especially since nothing's been made of it during the show.

There's also a problem with the doubly distanced nostalgia of the play: it's a sixties play about the first half of the twentieth century. When, in the sixties, we looked back at the gay nineties and the twenties and the thirties, we saw rather different things as cute, cherishable, lost-and-longed-for than we see now, another half century on. Those uncomfortable, innocent newlyweds, relics of a gay nineties in which young men and women came to the wedding bed utterly innocent of sex . . . well, three or four decades ago perhaps we could have felt as condescendingly warm about that as the opening of this play asks us to be, but it's much more difficult here in the oughts of a new millennium, when we're much less likely to believe such innocence actually existed, or to see it as cute.

In retrospect, I wonder whether the lovely set and lighting and costumes haven't overdressed the show. Like The Fantasticks, I Do! I Do! is one of a number of attempts to cut back on the elaborate overkill of the "Golden Age" musical, and get back to the bare bones of drama -- minimal sets, single piano accompaniment, small casts. Perhaps the show would work better if we saw it as two actors working with only their bodies and voices and a single piano. Whether that would add up to a Playhouse main stage production is another question, however.

In any case, it's worth seeing a couple of pros (under the direction of another pro, Walter Learning, who uses the stage and the rhythm of the scenes expertly) get all you can get out of the script. And it's worth hearing the exceptional skills of accompanist (and musical director) Jonathan Monro. But I have to confess some disappointment that this show is the one to end TNB's first season under what began last fall as a brave new start.

Note: Walter Learning has pointed out in an email that it's not Agnes, but Michael, who actually says, "Can't you see how I've grown?" It's even harder to see how he's "grown" at that point, though we can see that both have changed. Or perhaps been changed, as the playwright needed to raise a new issue.
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