George Kelly was one of the most noted of our playwrights during the 1920s, particularly for his drama Craig’s Wife, the heavy story of a woman who values her home and possessions above all else, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925. He was also famous for his social comedies The Torch-Bearers, a definitive send-up of amateur theater groups that was wonderfully revived in 2000 with Marian Seldes, and The Show-Off, a sharp dissection of an all-American blowhard and boaster. His work tapered off in the 30s, where he spent some time in Hollywood spinning his wheels. In the late 40s, he returned to Broadway with The Fatal Weakness, which starred the light comedienne Ina Claire, a peerless technician who had made her name in the plays of S.N. Berhman. It got some good reviews, but it was not a success, and Kelly did little else but enjoy the movie stardom of his niece Grace and live out the rest of his life with his companion of fifty years, William E. Weagly.
The Mint Theater revived a 1931 Kelly play last year called Philip Goes Forth, and now they have turned their attention to The Fatal Weakness in their customary sensitive and coaxing style. It’s a fragile thing, this play, like a sweet little flower that keeps drooping, and the company does all it can to get it facing upright and in the sun again. It concerns Mrs. Ollie Espenshade (Kristin Griffith), a cloistered, romantic, upper-class woman who gradually finds out that her husband is having an affair. That’s really the extent of the plot, stretched out over three extremely talky acts, with a running subplot about Ollie’s daughter Penny (Victoria Mack) and her modern ideas about child-rearing that never quite comes to anything.
You have to hand it to Griffith and Cynthia Darlow, who plays Ollie’s friend Mrs. Wentz: they get through reams of fussy dialogue as quickly and stylishly as possible. They sometimes lean a little too hard on their prim standard American accents, but it might be remembered that Grace Kelly herself actually did sound this way, odd as it seems to our ears now. Griffith brings a pleasingly fluttery vulnerability to her marathon star part, but it must have been difficult for even Ina Claire to have been this fey over such a long distance.
What is the fatal weakness of the title? It seems to be Ollie’s maidenly romanticism, which Kelly suggests has kept her distant from her husband all these years. It’s really rather a sad play if you think about it, and you’ll have plenty of time to think. The real star here is the set by Vicki R. Davis, a world of flowers and Dresden china that perfectly evokes the never-never land psychological state of the heroine. This is a vital production of a neglected late Kelly play, but I’d love to see the Mint tackle Craig’s Wife or The Show-Off next.