The musical version of Jan de Hartog's Tony Award-winning play The Four Poster is called I Do! I Do!--and if it weren't for two fine performers who pump their life's breath into it at Littleton's Town Hall Arts Center, it would be a resounding I Don't. The songs are uniformly dull and interfere with the flow of the story--a story that requires a great deal of its actors, who must age fifty years in two hours.
The two-person show, which closes this weekend, plots the course of a nineteenth-century marriage by focusing entirely on the couple's bedroom. The wedding night is an ordeal for both husband and wife; Michael (David Payne) is just as anxious at the prospect of sexual union as Agnes (Julia Payne), so she has to get the ball rolling with a kiss. After Agnes gets pregnant, her husband comes down with an illness suspiciously like labor pains. When Agnes scolds him for his foolishness, we learn what the real problem is: He's afraid the child will somehow take his place and make him irrelevant.
After life settles down, though, Michael and Agnes begin to grate on each other. Michael suffers from the illusion that the romantic novels he writes for a living are somehow important, so after fifteen years he takes up with an adoring mistress who "appreciates" him. He also enjoys taunting his wife about how distinguished he is and how dried up she is. This is the most mean-spirited bit in the play--but it is typical of a certain middle-aged perspective. And though Agnes feigns indifference, she's as bitter as nettles. It's Julia Payne's best moment, if her character's worst.
Just as Agnes packs her bags to leave, Michael runs after her, slings her over his shoulder and retrieves her. What he really wants, besides his wife's approval, of course, is a return to their emotional intimacy. And as time passes, the couple rediscover their commitment to each other, leading to the only song of the evening with any flavor at all, "My Cup Runneth Over." When the children marry, however, Agnes discovers she doesn't really know who she is and thinks the way to find out is to leave her husband. Naturally, he straightens her out--returning the favor she did him earlier in the show.
The fact that the Paynes are married in real life probably accounts for the degree of intimacy they are able to project on stage. The first act is a bit bumpy--costume problems and awkward moments with furniture hampered the show the night I saw it. But the second act has an emotional verity that works nicely, involving the viewer fully in the couple's fate.
Unfortunately, while the Paynes can each carry a tune, neither has any depth of sound, which only strains the thin music further. A much better choice for them would have been de Hartog's original play, a far more entertaining piece of work that was staged by Boulder's Nomad Players earlier this year.
With its gentle marriage-affirming sentiments, I Do! I Do! will appeal most to older audiences. (I couldn't help but notice how offended many older audience members were by the Arvada Center's production of the openly cynical Company last week; a whole row of seniors got up and walked out during the second act.) The Town Hall Arts Center may be playing to its demographics, but it chooses its season more thoughtfully than does the Arvada Center--and more realistically, too.--Mason
I Do! I Do!, through May 17 at the Town Hall Arts Center, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 794-
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