BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
One of the most applauded American plays of the early 1900s, Langdon Mitchell's "The New York Idea" is a social comedy regarding divorce among impulsive, well-to-do people.
Since the play was so up-to-the-minute in 1906 thought and style, the dear old thing today is a pretty if cumbersome antique that still retains considerable period charm and cleverness.
"The New York Idea" now has been adapted — drastically and hideously — by "Proof" playwright David Auburn and mistakenly staged by Atlantic Theater Company at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where director Mark Brokaw's mostly atrocious production opened on Wednesday.
Auburn's botched blueprint and Brokaw's execution present the theatrical equivalent of demolishing a Stanford White townhouse and incorporating some of its vintage pieces into a shoddy MacMansion.
Heavily rewriting Mitchell's story about two freshly divorced couples on the verge of wedding each other, Auburn mostly extracts Mitchell's satirical commentary on divorce and morality — the ideas from "The New York Idea" — and fashions instead a silly quasi-period farce without any new ideas at all.
The result is a pointless and sadly humorless affair that should not bear the original's title.
Insider baseball note: Auburn eliminates the observant character of Grace, a fashionable young lady, and invents a French maid who makes snappy remarks like "C'est la vie."
Dressed very girlishly by designer Michael Krass — whose 1900s costumes never seem quite right — Jaime Ray Newman brings a crude voice and modern-day physicality to the key role of Cynthia, whose flighty ways confound her stuffy prospective husband (Michael Countryman) and sporty former spouse (Jeremy Shamos). Neither capable actor appears at his best.
A preening Francesca Faridany tries awfully hard to be gay — in the old-fashioned way — as the man-eating divorcee Vida Philimore, but Auburn's invented banter is cheap material and her pseudo-Poiret wardrobe is unbecoming. Amiable Joey Slotnick simply looks miscast as a worldly clergyman.
The pleasing exceptions in Brokaw's misguided production are a breezy Rick Holmes as a visiting British ladies' man and a nicely starchy Patricia Conolly as a strait-laced Washington Square spinster.
Designer Allen Moyer neatly presents three contrasting interiors — a parlor, a boudoir and a study — by turning around three different fireplaces respectively painted in shocking shades of gold, orange and olive. From the bold looks of the set, it's obvious that Atlantic Theater hoped to provide a stylish update on a mostly-forgotten old charmer and too bad for everybody the show came out so badly.
"The New York Idea" continues through Feb 26 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.atlantictheater.org.