Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar has been chiefly forgotten by American audiences since his death in the 1950s, but during the first half of the century, he was a Broadway phenomenon. After his international success spilled across the Atlantic, 16 of his plays were produced on Broadway between 1908 and 1940. Most were also turned into movies: The Guardsman, the only film ever made by Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, is based on a Molnar play. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Liliom, Molnar’s dark comedy about a ne’er-do-well carnival barker who, after he dies, is given one chance to redeem his abusive behavior toward his long-suffering wife. Actors Theatre of Louisville’s elegant revivals of two Molnar masterpiecesThe Play’s the Thing and Olympiahighlight his genius for romantic comedy as well as his sharp, cynical and often self-conscious edge. (The fact that P.G. Wodehouse did the translation of The Play’s the Thing suggests the level of sophistication to which Molnar’s comedy rises.)
Critics frequently cite the autobiographical elements in Molnar’s plays, and Sandor Turai, the hero of The Play’s the Thingone of Molnar’s most well-known masterpiecesis a clever, extremely gifted Hungarian playwright. Played with affable intelligence by William McNulty, Turai is even made to look like Molnar, who parted his hair straight down the middle in a severe, distinctive style. Molnar’s self-consciousness about the act of creation permeates the play: The audience hears the careful stage directions before each act, and several times Turai almost seems to step outside the action as he develops a play within the play.
The Play’s the Thing juxtaposes a happy ending with a very cynical statement about affairs of the heart. Turai and his young ward, Albert, accidentally overhear an adulterous conversation between Albert’s actress fiancée, Ilona, and an actor who was once her patron. Turai then hatches a plot to heal Albert’s wounded heart: In two short hours, he writes a play that incorporates all of the embarrassing, crude and ridiculous dialogue that passed between Ilonawho truly loves Albertand the insufferably pompous actor, Almady, played with hilarious intensity by V. Craig Heidenreich. When the pair rehearses it in Albert’s presence, he is convinced Ilona is guilty of nothing more than rehearsing her linesand Turai, through his hilarious script, punishes both sinners with a gleeful aplomb that only they and the audience can fully appreciate.
While Albert’s faith in Ilona’s purity remains intact, however, the audience cherishes no such illusions. Although Molnar presents Ilona as the sympathetic victim of a momentary lapseand, as Ilona, Elizabeth Heflin deftly maintains the balance between vamp and virginal heroinewe know she’ll fall from her pedestal again. Typical of Molnar, this cynical twist shows up again in the film The Guardsman, in which a man disguises himself and seduces his wife to test her faithfulness. He is tortured forever after because he is unable to tell whether she really knew it was him.
a later Molnar comedy that combines classic romantic comedy with a heavy-handed satire on the stiff mannerisms of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s Teutonic royalty, has a roller-coaster ride’s worth of delightfully funny twists and turns. The lovely Princess Olympia has fallen for the handsome Kovacs, who is a common soldier despite the fact that he speaks seven languages and is the most accomplished horseman in the empire. Because a trystor, worse yet, a marriageto a commoner would threaten the family’s prestige and position, Olympia is ordered by her mother to end the affair. “Don’t wound him. Be humane. Strike to kill,” the old dowager advises. “One word is enough...if it goes straight to the heart.”
When Olympia dutifully delivers the killing word, the clever Kovacs designs an ingenious revenge. Only he, Olympia and her mother will ever know about it, so he maintains gentlemanly discretion while delivering a wound that is as painful as it is well deserved. Molnar’s ending isn’t happy but it’s satisfying. Anyone who has ever felt like a snubbed commoner is bound to cheer; Molnar’s audiencesmany of whom lived in a time when status and prestige were most often achieved through birthmust have loved it.
The first writer ever to earn $1 million a year, Molnar embodied the celebrity playwright and artistic bohemian throughout his life, scribbling out many of his early plays in a Budapest coffeehouse that adopted the name “New York” to give itself an international aura. When the political upheaval of World War II set Molnar adrift, he ultimately settled in America, where his health and work both declined.
Actors Theatre has revived these works from Molnar’s heyday for its annual Classics in Context festival, accompanying them with lectures, videos, films and displays on the playwright’s work and career. Molnar’s plays demand brilliant staging, and they get it at Actor’s. Placed like glittering jewels in Allen Moyer’s polished sets, they bring back an era when a play was a carefully crafted, devised, contrived thingmuch, Molnar seems to imply, like life when it’s lived well.
Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production of Olympia runs through Nov. 18. Call (502) 584-1205 for more information.
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I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
This was the worse review I've ever read. Maybe you should quit this career path…