The Return of Peter Grimm
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
March 18, 2010
In reviving The Return of Peter Grimm by David Belasco, Metropolitan Playhouse has once again resurrected an important piece of American theatre history. Artistic director Alex Roe, who directed and designed the set, has crafted a meticulous, respectful production that breathes new life into Belasco's 1911 play (out of copyright, the full text can be found here). Every element—cast, design, direction—works in harmony to create an agreeable whole. It's not quite enough to shake the dust off Belasco's dated moralizing (there are many syrupy monologues about eternal reward and the virtues of motherhood), but the production miraculously keeps sentiment at bay, respecting the text without capitulating to its traps. What emerges is a poignant tale of a man who tries to set things right with his family, a tribute to the power of second chances.
The Return of Peter Grimm tells the story of just that—Peter Grimm's return from the dead, compelled by the need to stop the impending marriage between his adopted daughter, Catherine, and his ne'er-do-well nephew, Frederick. Grimm set the marriage in motion as his dying wish, but once he "knows better" (as he calls dying), he realizes how wrong he was. Frederick is not the trustworthy heir he imagined, but a mercenary cad. Poor Catherine (who wouldn't dream of going back on her last promise to Grimm) is really in love with James, Grimm's earnest assistant and secretary. The suspense lies in Grimm's struggle to be heard among the living and overturn the marriage he once demanded—but not even the good Doctor Macpherson, who delivers many a long discourse on the then fashionable fad of spiritualism—can hear him. It's up to Willem, the wide-eyed grandchild of Grimm's housekeeper, to receive Grimm's message.
Roe's detailed set—a credible, multi-leveled version of a much-loved, much-lived-in upstate cottage—well serves a play by Belasco, a notorious stickler for detail. (Belasco allegedly threw a tantrum when, in one production, a pitcher of syrup was brought on stage when the script called for molasses). The lighting, designed by Christopher Weston, pays careful attention to Belasco's deliberate contrast of light and dark. (Belasco was a pioneer of lighting design to create mood and image as well as a director and playwright). Sidney Fortner (who also plays the role of busybody Rose Batholommey) has fashioned period-accurate costumes that also reflect the eccentricities of each character, particularly the determined old-fashioned-ness of family patriarch Peter Grimm.
Broadway veteran Frank Anderson brings complexity to the title role, making Peter Grimm avuncular yet rueful, jolly but thoughtful. Helen Highfield makes ingenue Catherine endearing but not saccharine, while Brad Fraizer brings poignancy to her would-be suitor, James. Ken Ferrigni seethes with understated indignation as the villainous nephew Frederick, giving him a smidgen of welcome humanity. Richard Vernon epitomizes wisdom as Doctor Andrew Macpherson, even if he can't quite overcome the fusty sales pitch of all the speeches endorsing the wonders of spiritualism. Linda Blackstock makes a compassionate housekeeper, Marta, while Sidney Fortner is suitably fussy as gossipy neighbor Rose Batholommey. George C. Hosmer is appropriately reverent as the Reverend, Rose's husband, and George Taylor creates both an eerie Clown and a memorably petulant friend who wishes he had more money from Grimm's will. Matthew Hughes brings a quiet gravity to the pivotal role of Willem, the little boy on whom everyone's happiness suddenly depends.
Under Roe's direction, the actors coalesce into an intimate ensemble. The pacing was still a bit slow in the preview I saw, but it should improve over time. Belasco's dramaturgy may seem predictable to modern audiences (characters tend to take an awfully long time explaining things we've already figured out ten minutes ago), but to Roe and his cast's credit, the production demonstrates how nevertheless affecting the play is. The quiet final scene is a masterfully understated ending.