The Bachelors’ Tea Party
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 13, 2012
Stolen Chair, one of my favorite indie theater companies, is offering a unique performance event this spring/summer at Lady Mendl's, an eating and drinking establishment located in a townhouse near Gramercy Park. It's called The Bachelors' Tea Party, and it takes place, literally and dramaturgically, at a tea party. (Actually, the play spans multiple tea parties over multiple years.)
The "bachelors" of the title (self-described, I should add) are Bessie Marbury, who in the late 19th century became America's first "play broker" (we'd call her a literary agent nowadays), and her very dear friend Elsie DeWolfe, an actress who became America's very first interior decorator (and who, years after the play takes place, became Lady Mendl). The script, by Kiran Rikhye, depicts Bessie and Elsie taking tea and making plans—Bessie wants to create a club for women where she and other like-minded females can conduct financial affairs in similar fashion to businessmen of the time; Elsie wants to become a theater producer like her current boss Charles Frohman, and to engage Clyde Fitch to write vehicles for her to star in.
Their chats become contentious as times, and so others are brought in to bolster one or the other lady's position: we meet Anne Morgan (J. Pierpont's daughter) and Mrs. DeMille (Cecil B.'s mother), and later, Frohman and Fitch. All four are portrayed by a pair of old-fashioned china dolls, and we're meant to understand that they are make-believe—literal puppets being used by these strong-minded women to help them score points one against the other.
The play is charming, witty, and extremely interesting (I learned a lot about these women and their times, and helpful program notes provide even more material to peruse after the show). It's also fairly brief, running perhaps 35 minutes or so. The choice that Stolen Chair has made, to incorporate it within an actual tea service that the audience partakes of before, during, and after the show, stretches the event to evening length.
I was disappointed, though, that the two parts of this particular experience didn't cohere more. Though the Lady Mendl's five-course tea service adds a certain period ambiance to the experience, it doesn't add anything to the play and the play doesn't add anything to it: indeed, the script could easily be performed in a traditional theater (and would probably play better in that format; the tea service interrupted rather than enhanced the drama). Further, I was surprised that while the bill of fare seemed Victorian enough to my admittedly untrained palate, the waiters were clad, most modernly, in black t-shirts and pants. Livery seemed to be what was called for.
In the end, I wanted The Bachelors' Tea Party to be more of a party—I didn't need to interact with Bessie and Elsie, but I didn't understand why we were watching them, at what I presumed to be their own home, in this public space. Site-specific theater tends to remove, psychologically, the fourth wall; director Jon Stancato and his collaborators seemed to be putting it right back up again.
Liz Eckert and Jody Flader portray Bessie and Elsie, respectively; I enjoyed my time in their company. But your appreciation of a mid-day tea comprising butternut squash tart, assorted sandwiches, scones, cake, cookies, and chocolate-covered strawberries is probably paramount in your decision whether to join them in this presentation.