Portrait of a Lady

At the Colonial

A less ambitious transcription from Henry James, The Innocents, proved William Archibald an accomplished craftsman. In some two hours imposed by the theatre, however, even he can't execute an intricate portrait laid on with the brush strokes of eight hundred pages. He has drawn the lines faithfully, attentive to perspective and detail, but the shadings are necessarily hasty and the tone is flat. While elegant, costumed by Beaton and framed in the Eckarts' sets, the portrait remains a sketch. Worst of all, the portrait is dull, for there is neither life nor appeal in the Lady's eyes.

The undertaking is nevertheless impressive, and it may be precisely the author's faithfulness to James which makes the play disappointing. Retaining almost all the characters of the novel, he in effect accepts a synopsis as his plot. The result is a heavy burden of exposition, which slows the first act hopelessly and blurs the dramatic focus of the play. More important, while the genius of James as a novelist surmounted awkward handling of dialogue, it is almost wholly from that dialogue--often stiff and opaque--that Archibald has fashioned his play. He might better have interpolated passages in which James lights his characters as he seldom does through their words. On such passages the reader relies above all in regard to the "frail vessel" of James' heroine. Without assurances of Isabel's wit and sensitivity, he could find no tragedy in the end of her independence--her longing to embrace life and soar on her imagination--in the prison of a marriage based on hatred and convention. The Isabel of her words alone seems only the Isabel with whom James began, "the mere slim shade of an innocent and presumptuous girl," the shade to which it was his prime goal to give body and importance.

While Archibald's play fails this goal, a gifted actress as Isabel might have attained it. Unfortunately, Jennifer Jones has at this point so little control over the role that she seems to leave it unattended on the stage. In the first act, when Isabel must prove worthy of interest, Miss Jones may well have had her lines on flash cards. Though her words had more conviction in later scenes, there remained the disturbing sense that she was hearing the director: "six steps to the left; wring hands." Miss Jones as Miss Jones learning a part has neither charm nor authority, and however much the role might suffer from over-acting, it dies when played hesitantly. In fumbling hands, the tragedy of Isabel is all too simple: she is a ninny.

The other roles are all to some extent casualties of the script. While a few--Warburton, Pansy, Goodwood--are basket cases, even longer parts are challenges to convey in fifty lines a character etched by James in as many pages. Barbara O'Neil's portrayal of the intriguing Serena Merle, ineptly introduced by Archibald, is a major disappointment. While she sails imposingly about the stage, she evokes less "the wisest woman in the world" than the grande dame of Kansas City. Director Jose Quintero, however, must take the blame for allowing one outrageous failure. As Isabel's uncle, Halliwell Hobbes does a prolonged parody of Lionel Barrymore and exits with the rending cackle of a road-show Silas Marner.

The others succeed to a remarkable degree. Douglas Watson is an affecting Ralph, gentle without being wispy as Isabel's consumptive adorer. Though given no chance to hint at the charm and initial love which wins Isabel's hand, Robert Flemyng's Osmund is to perfection the egoistic tyrant the script prescribes. With Archibald's assist, however, one performance makes all the others seem drab. Cathleen Nesbitt draws from the role of Osmund's vulgar sister a vibrant bitterness which bursts from the genteel monotony of the play. Her acid interpretation, less dilute with silliness than James' conception, gives the lines a brilliance which illuminates the last two acts. In her scenes there is an eloquent portrait of a lady; the play offers no other.