'Italian Straw Hat' at Loeb

Summer Season Ends With Labiche Comedy

The Italian Straw Hat now at the Loeb is a mixed haystack indeed. There is a great deal of chaff, but partially obscured in the loose straw are some fat kernels of wit and humor.

Eugene Labiche's 19th century French farce tells of some unusual obstacles facing Fadinard, a young man attempting to get married. While his future in-laws follow him all around Paris, he desperately searches for a replacement for a rare Italian straw hat his horse has eaten. The hat's owner, a young woman named Anais, along with her lover, have encamped themselves in Fadinard's house, making it impossible for him to bring his bride Helene home. Exactly how Fadinard got into this mess is a complicated story you need not be bothered with now; his adventures in locating a new hat make up the crazy tale you can see at the Loeb.

The script, intended by Labiche to provoke abundant laughter and no thought, is only sporadically successful. If written today it might not find a publisher. But since it has the dignity of age, audiences, particularly Harvard ones, are bound to respect it, and some clever situations do develop in the course of the evening.

The action is very fast, with Fadinard extricating himself from one hectic mess, only to find himself floundering in an even muckier one. As the stage is often filled with people, the play demands careful motion and precise timing, both essential for the humor to emerge.

All this requires a superb director, and that is exactly what the Loeb production lacks; in fact, there are moments when it seemed director Norris Houghton had failed to exert any influence. Each actor appeared to be on his own as far as motion and expression were concerned.


The result of Houghton's abdication was occasional anarchy, the loss of some good lines, and a pace that did not sustain the fragile plot.

Paul Schmidt, as Fadinard, was also largely responsible for the shortcomings of the performance. Labiche created a part that could be played many ways; Schmidt's totally distraught, rather weak and frantic bridegroom is not one of them.

Fadinard is not always in command, but Labiche did think him something of a schemer who plotted his way out of difficulties. Schmidt seemed to come upon plans by accident and carried them out only with the consent of Providence. He fretted and hopped about on stage far too much to command the flow of events.

Schmidt is often rescued, however, by the adroit performance of other actors. Pat Fay, who demonstrates her versatility by playing the part of a tough career girl, leads the list of those deserving kudos; Joanne Hamlin and Philip Kerr also merit considerable praise.

Those who saw Miss Fay blush in The Mandrake last month will hardly recognize her now as she barks orders in her hat shop and causes Fadinard some considerable embarrassement. The Cast AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT, by Eugene Labiche. At the Loeb Drama Center through Aug. 24. Directed by Norris Houghton, with sets by Donald Soule and costumes by Lewis Smith. Virginie  Jody Locker Felix  Mark Bramhall Vezinet  Tony Corbett Fadinard  Paul Schmidt Anals  Wendy Bensinger Emile  John A. Williams Nonancourt  Paul R. Barstow Helene  Etain O'Malley Bobin  Thomas Babe Clara  Patricia Fay Tardiveau  Timothy Mayer Achille de Rosalba  Philip Kerr The Baroness  Joanne Hamlin Clotilde  Loreiel F. Guldry Beauperthule  David H. Mills Corporal of the Guard   Robert Lanchester Miss Hamlin captivates the audience with her lisping Baroness, an extremely funny addition to the original script. Her accent was reminiscent of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Kerr, as her fawning Viscount, was a real dandy, whose reactions to the bewildered Fadinard provided some of the best moments in the show.

David Mills inspired considerable mirth as the furious husband of Anais, who endures a visit by Fadinard (in search of the hat) and all his relatives (who mistakenly think they are at Fadinard's house and prepare the bride for the conjugal bed). Mills starts out in grand style but loses some of his zest as the act progresses.

Maintaining both spirit and an uncanny resemblance to Howdy Doody throughout the play, Thomas Babe was quite charming as Helene's kissin' cousin, who is decidedly unhappy about the whole idea of her marriage and jumps excitedly at every opportunity to call it off.

Not exactly advancing the comedy, but not really suppressing it either, Tony Corbett makes only mild proggress with the extremely difficult part of Helene's deaf uncle. His lines are not particulary funny anyway, and require just a bit more in the way of action than he provided to be successful.

Poor Paul Barstow is once again the daffy old man, this time Helene's father. Playing the aged all summer seems to have made him prematurely senile: his Nonancourt is far too feeble for my taste, lacking the vigor one would expect from a hardy rural patrician.

Etain O'Malley makes Helene into an almost puppet-like characature of a young girl--too childish, unfortunately, to be convincing as a bride. But while her mechanical motions and speech are unsuitable at times, they do set up a few uproarious scenes. Whoever did her make-up on Wednesday night, however, should be dismissed immediately. It was ugly.

Less memorable were performances by Wendy Bensinger, whose Southern accent and stiffness do little for the part of Anais, and John Williams, whose Hussar lover was plain ludicrous. Timothy Mayer had some good moments as Miss Fay's aged clerk, but on the whole he bounced about excessively.