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J. B. Priestley was one of England's most respected writers, turning out novels, essays, reviews and plays until the Angry Young Men of the 1950s — playwright John Osborne chief among them — arrived in a firestorm of fury, working-class rebellion and critical acclamation as the future of theater, and they pushed Priestley's well-constructed three-act plays off into the wings. Yet his work has endured, and his plays still earn respect, particularly a brilliant trilogy in which he explores various theories about time. Priestley isn't known primarily as a comic writer, but When We Are Married, described variously as a farce and a drawing-room comedy, does present his comic side.
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Set in 1907 in Yorkshire, where Priestley grew up, the play concerns three status-conscious and conventional middle-class couples who were married in the same ceremony 25 years before and have reconvened to celebrate their anniversary and pose for a commemorative photo. Also on hand is Gerald, a young man who's courting the niece of one of the husbands and has an ace up his sleeve in case this stuffy uncle should frown on the courtship. There are a couple of servants around — a drunken, hostile charwoman and the far less prickly and generally ignored teenage maid — and a reporter and a mouthy photographer intrude on the action now and then, as does a free-spirited tootsie who once had a flirtation with one of the husbands at Blackpool.
The plot is flimsy. The couples discover that because of a minor technicality, their marriages aren't legal, and this gives all of them a chance to re-evaluate their relationships. Timid Herbert Soppitt is routinely ordered about by his shrewish wife, Clara; Annie Parker has grown tired of Albert, her stingy popinjay of a husband; and while the Helliwells appear to enjoy an occasional moment of communication, their marriage seems held together more by habit than anything warmer. Given the time and place they live in, however, these folks don't have the option of divorcing and creating entirely new lives — although we really want them to, because the script hints at possibilities of real love and transformation with just a little partner swapping. But Priestley allows only minor character changes — and these aren't exactly convincing. When Clara reveals a newfound respect for her husband after he's pulled a kind of small man's Petruchio on her, for instance, you can't help feeling you've encountered this meme a few thousand times already.
When We Are Married is, above all, an ensemble piece, and director Bruce K. Sevy has assembled some of the strongest talents in the Denver Center Theatre Company for his production, including — among others — Sam Gregory, Leslie O'Carroll, John Hutton and Erik Sandvold. But there's something about regular English accents that can trip up the finest American actors, and a Yorkshire dialect is even harder than standard. Not only that, but many of the characters spend half the time drunk. Which meant a lot of slurring and gabble, and whole speeches flying by in which I could make out perhaps every third word. If there was subtlety, texture or ironic humor there, I didn't catch it. So while all the acting was serviceable, and sometimes better, the standout performances came unexpectedly in two smaller roles: In a couple of short scenes, Benjamin Bonenfant moved with style from diffidence to confidence as Gerald, and Sarah Manton played the teenage skivvy, Ruby Birtle, as so light on her feet, inquisitive, open and charming that I found myself constantly on the watch for her next entrance.
There's some humor and interest to the play, the production is sumptuous, and the set and costumes (by Vicki Smith and David Kay Mickelsen, respectively) deserve a round of applause all on their own. Still, the entire enterprise feels a bit tired and dated, and periodically you wish those Angry Young Men would just barge onto the stage and take over. I like it when local companies bring forward a significant but unjustly neglected writer. But with Curious Theatre Company filling their seasons with exciting new voices and Buntport continuing their decade-long original and experimental voyage, the Denver Center will never fill their seats or entice a new generation of viewers with period pieces like this.
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