Dallas — Do rich people need God to find happiness? That’s the question propelling Rachel Crother’s 70-year-old play, Susan and God, a 1937 Broadway show that became an MGM film in 1940, starring Joan Crawford and Frederick March. Now Theatre Three is reviving the two-and-a-half-hour play about the trials of being rich and purposeless, and the major burden of opening one’s summer mansion to accommodate an offspring.
A deluded and determined socialite named Susan (Catherine DuBord) is just back from a mansion-hopping trip to England where she’s hooked up with a titled cult leader who’s fired her up about God with a capitol G. Susan’s alcoholic husband, Barrie (Ashley Wood), wants to revive their failing marriage and spend the summer with their painfully neglected teenage daughter Blossom (Maya Pearson), who’s been fitted with braces and specs and stuffed in boarding schools and summer camps her whole life.
But Susan is too busy bullying all her idle rich friends into confessing their sins and finding happiness through God and public grievances to listen to her penitent, adoring husband. She makes her entrance at her friend’s summer home, an elegant garden in Donna Marquet’s spacious set design. Susan’s best friends include a stylish, horsy couple (Vanessa De Silvio and Jeff Wittekiend) who need a divorce or two to legitimize their tepid affair; a former actress (Alle Mims) vamping an old colleague and wannabe lover (Jovane Caamano) to cheat on her harrumphing husband (Brian Hoffman); and a sturdy bachelorette (Desiree Fultz) who loves bumbling Barrie, even unto the 18th hole of the clubby golf course they all share.
The play was written toward the end of the Great Depression, but there’s no sign of economic catastrophe amongst Susan and her friends. Of course, then, as now, escaping reality for an evening at the theater with witty, carefree characters was a welcome respite. Noel Coward’s Private Lives and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes are classics of an era that specialized in playful satires about bored rich people. Unfortunately, although they are fashionably attired and wealthy, the men and women in Crothers’ play are not all that fascinating, despite the efforts of the jaunty cast.
Director Lisa Devine does her best to sharpen the satiric edge on a social comedy set in a period when divorce was a scandal and even wealthy women had to wrangle bigtime to free themselves of a bad marriage.
But that line gets frayed in a series of odd little sequences in which the troubled teenage daughter watches the action longingly from the arena stage steps, and claps her hands to shift a scene slightly. The play’s chief interest is more historical, and lies in our attitude toward the self-involved heroine and her shallow wade into spiritual waters.
Beautiful Catherine DuBord is always compelling. As Susan, she is a firefly, burning brightly with a new mission to convert her social circle to an easy, ecstatic link to God that makes everybody happy, so she herself will get the credit. Svelte and imperious, DuBord’s classy socialite looks terrific in Tory Padden’s handsome 30s’ outfits and hairdos. (All the women look period-perfect.)
Silly and selfish as she is, DuBord’s simpering Susan is still more interesting than anybody else in the play, even though they all have a lot of stock lines to define themselves as bored actress, playboy lover or loyal good old girl who puts up with everything for the man she secretly loves. Actors can only do so much with that sort of dialogue. The cast’s best scene is when they’re all hamming it up, pretending a confessional moment to humor Susan; at least we’re all having fun for a moment.
Ashley Wood, a charismatic, quietly intense actor who can suddenly wrench your heart away, is here reduced to a groveling husband at the mercy of a calculating wife who he loves desperately, although why becomes less clear as the play proceeds. Wood does have his comic moments here, telling off one of Susan’s friends simply because he’s always hated the guy.
Pearson’s Blossom quakes and trembles at her mother’s every command, and the two are the epitome of familial awkwardness when the plump teenager tries to embrace her stiff and unwilling mommy dearest.
We follow the characters to the end, as Susan and company grope toward some sort of resolution, which does arrive following two intermissions. Whether that resolution is satisfying, overly melodramatic or even believable is perhaps the most interesting question the play poses.