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The First Gentleman

At the Plymouth

By Larry Hartmann

Walter Slezak does incredibly much to bring life to The First Gentleman. He bursts through an unbalanced, unfocussed play with enough strength and humor to make any moment that he is on stage worthwhile. But he is only the star; unfortunately the play also owes something to its author.

His name is Norman Ginsburg. His hand has never found its skill.

The play should be a comedy, and often is. But Mr. Ginsburg had three or four too many minds working at once, and he drops in unfortunate streaks of tragedy and melodrama. Much of this seems due to unwillingness to write his own play--he lets history control too much of the plot, and too rarely selects or rejects events or details. He makes a sprawling leap into the life of the prince regent (the future King George IV) of England, and hopes, evidently, that a comedy with serious scenes and historical validity will emerge. Instead, he creates an amorphous opus with no real line or arch from beginning to end, and he obscures the comedy.

The prince regent, a splendidly overdebauched plum of pomposity, has a marriageable daughter, Charlotte. She wants a poor prince; her father wants a rich prince. She runs away to her mother, a drunken escapee from Tennessee Williams. The mother scene is not at all badly acted, but its depressing, maudlin effect is absurdly bad for the play.

Charlotte returns to daddy; the prince regent is won over; Charlotte marries her true love. This would be a safe, traditional spot to end a comedy. But, as hardly any members of History 142b (and even fewer members of the audience) remember, actually Charlotte promptly died in childbirth, saddening her father, frustrating his hopes for begetting a line of kings, and leading to the accession of a devious niece called Victoria.

Unless the play either stops before Charlotte's death or at least leaves it far off stage, seen only in retrospect, it will remain an uneasy comedy-tragedy, unsuccessful as either.

Why Tyrone Guthrie, an outstanding director, should believe in this play is a mystery, but he proves his ingenuity and does an enormous amount of work to cover the author's odd efforts with an engaging, amusing, decidely well-wrought surface. He and Mr. Slezak make delightful details out of nearly nothing--a gesture, a glance, or a footman.

The actors as a whole are on Guthrie's side, not on the author's, so the results are quite creditable. Dorothy Sands as a governess is excellent, Inga Swenson as Charlotte has all the charm and impetuousness of the not quite ingenue, and Maria Fein as the drunken mother is fine for her part, which should be inserted into a play worthy of it.

But it is Slezak who supports everything. Nearly all his laughs are earned by business and intonation; nearly none by lines. When he drinks champagne, allows himself to be corseted, or just stalks in and out, the evening is a success. But why must such a highly talented star as Slezak drag along a playwright like Mr. Ginsburg?

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