Two Leads Almost Save 'Life With Father'

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By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 8, 2007

The new McLean Community Players are at full strength, having merged the three community theater companies that used to perform at McLean's Alden Theatre. Full strength doesn't guarantee happy results, however: The production of the gentle family comedy "Life With Father" is disappointing, and would be unwatchable were it not for the fine performances of its two lead actors.

"Life With Father" is set around 1890. Clarence Day wrote a series of stories about growing up in his Park Avenue family. The most famous story focused on his father, a demanding Wall Street broker.

Famed Broadway writers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse adapted Day's memoir for the stage, where it became a record-breaking smash in 1939 (it went on to do 3,224 performances) and a hit 1947 film.

But director Roland Branford Gomez hasn't added any luster to its reputation with this sloppy production. There's poignancy in the failure, as Gomez served as an understudy for the youngest member of the original Broadway cast.

That the production had problems became apparent as soon as the curtains drew back opening night, revealing portions of the plush morning room of the Day house. Part of the set extends onto the stage's apron, over the unused orchestra pit. That part looked fine. But the segment behind the curtains was obviously not finished. Seams remained exposed, panel coverings were missing and a grand staircase appeared slapped together and unpainted. Designer Bill Glikbarg had planned his usual attractive set, but something unfortunate happened between drawing board and stage.

The production had more success meeting one of the mandates set by the McLean Community Center, which operates the Alden: It filled seats. A healthy-size audience was on hand opening night, although quite a few vacated seats were evident by Act 3. Those who left early missed some of the best scenes, moments featuring only the family's patriarch and matriarch.

A plot line running through a series of vignettes concerns Mother's machinations to get cantankerous Father baptized, something she is shocked to discover he somehow missed in his youth.

Two stage veterans fill the parental roles expertly. Philip Baedecker is Clarence "Clare" Day, the blunt, exacting father who expects the world, and especially his family, to live up to his rigorous standards. Baedecker always exudes warmth onstage, with a twinkle in his eyes that can be seen from the back rows.

Father may be difficult, but Baedecker's innate geniality keeps him from being a stiff martinet. Baedecker can coldly rebuke a servant, then light up when approached by one of his children, and have both seem natural.

Baedecker is matched by redoubtable Barbara Hayes as the mother, Lavinia "Vinnie" Day. With a sweet voice and patient expression, Hayes glows with elegance and virtue to cloak Lavinia's steely resolve. Father may be master of his domain, but Mother skillfully masters him.

Scenes between Hayes and Baedecker are light and breezy, their chemistry providing the emotional ballast. Much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Actors are either not ready for stage appearances or have been coached to cartoonish performances, the opposite of what's needed for this nostalgic slice-of-life comedy.

Spring Hill Elementary first-grader Michael Berkowitz is one exception, radiating natural cuteness as the youngest child, Harlan; Rebecca Lenehan is another as the long-suffering cook, Margaret.

Chris Macey's costuming for the women is outstanding. His period dresses are sumptuous, combining colorful, rich fabrics with extensive detail. The effect is visually stunning.

Macey's costumes for the men are less interesting, though he did jam hideous copper-colored, mop-like wigs onto the heads of the family's four boys. It makes them look ridiculous, adding to the ragged start for these not-ready-for-prime-time players.

"Life With Father" continues through Feb. 17, performed by McLean Community Players at the Alden Theatre, McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. this Sunday. 703-573-7328 orhttp://www.ticketmaster.com. For information, go tohttp://www.mcleancommunityplayers.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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