THE BLOG
09/15/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

First Nighter: George Kelly's Fatal Weakness Not Fatally Weak

In Craig's Wife, George Kelly's 1925 play subsequently filmed twice with Rosalind Russell and then Joan Crawford as the title figure, the woman in the chilling character study is someone so compulsively involved with achieving perfection in a well-appointed home that she's sealed herself off from actual life.

In The Fatal Weakness, George Kelly's 1946 vehicle for Ina Claire and now revived at the Mint after 68 years, Ollie Espenshade (Kristin Griffith) is a spoiled rich woman who initially looks as if she could be Harriet Craig's younger sister. Like Mrs. Craig, she's so off-putting that it very soon seems the script in which she's embedded is becoming unfortunately weak, if not fatal.

To add to Ollie's initial lack of interest for today's audience, she's the mother of a daughter Penny (Victoria Mack), who's completely unthinking about her husband, Vernon (Sean Patrick Hopkins), and also about an unseen son called Punchy who's apparently hell on wheels, not that Penny would ever concede as much.

Further establishing the narrow Fatal Weakness aspects is Vicki R. Davis's quite effective set, a drawing room the walls of which are completely mirrored. The unmistakable metaphor strongly confirms that the inhabitants only want to see themselves. Notably, it isn't Ollie spending the most time looking into the expanse of mirrors. It's her ostentatiously cheerful husband Paul (Cliff Bemis).

It may occur to patrons watching Ollie and Penny at their petty concerns that when Kelly created them in 1946, he was out to represent the plight of women bred merely to make supposedly good marriages and raise children at a time when pursuing careers was roundly discouraged. Their opportunities were tightly circumscribed, and unattractive egotism was the result.

At that time, his intentions made sense, but not so much now -- which is to say that on first impression The Fatal Weakness comes across as dated, as hardly relevant to current audiences' interests. Ollie and Penny are stuck in another era.

So is Ollie's good and gossipy friend, Mrs. Mabel Wentz (Cynthia Darlow), the one to whom Ollie first confides the contents of a letter informing her that Paul is having an extra-marital affair. It's with an osteopath, whose appeal to Paul could be that the woman does have a career, though that reason for his philandering isn't made explicit.

The Fatal Weakness is a three-act play, done here -- as revived three-act plays should be done but usually aren't -- in three acts. (Thank Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank for regularly hewing to the policy.) But the unfortunate hitch is that by the end of the comedy-drama's second act, Ollie and Penny have been so alienating in their obtuseness that they may have become past caring about.

But that's when the not-fatal Fatal Weakness condition kicks in. Act three arrives and Ollie, dressed in yet another striking '40s fashion (Andrea Varga is the astute costumer), wakes up to herself. When she does, she takes a couple of strides that completely remove her from Harriet Craig's shadow and put her on a path toward what we think of now as a modern woman.

Precisely what she does, while speaking some sharp Kelly dialogue, won't be detailed here, but if it isn't exactly feminist, it's sufficiently pre-feminist to hint at societal changes already in the air directly after the end of World War II.

Before final fade-out, Kelly also indicates that Penny realizes the errors of her self-absorbed ways, but this transformation, briefly mentioned rather than shown, is less convincing. Even had she attempted reconciliation with the sympathetic Vernon, as depicted in a scene with mother-in-law Ollie where he discusses his disillusionment, it's no cinch that Vernon would take her back.

By the way, as the '50s unfolded, Kelly became increasingly less known as a playwright. Despite his successes, he was increasingly better known as Grace Kelly's uncle. I mention that because his beautiful and accomplished niece would have made an ideal Ollie Espenshade had she ever had the occasion to play the role.

Griffith, however, does extremely well. She has the tall, lithe, patrician looks Ollie should have as a lady of accustomed wealth. She's able to convey the vapid expressions the imperceptive Ollie must muster in the play's first two-thirds and then transform them in the third act to amused determination.

As directed by Jesse Marchese with a shrewd understanding of this social stratum, the other cast members are just as spot on. That includes Patricia Kilgarriff, as a maid who's seen at the start of the play not answering a telephone or arranging flowers in an expensive-looking vase. At one point she does bring in already arranged flowers. On the other hand, she never touches the eye-catching display of orange feathers in a fancy vase that Davis has put on one of the several tables here and there.

(Were feathers in a vase a trendy '40s house-beautiful display? If so, kudos to Davis for remembering?)

At various times, sound designer Jane Shaw saucily pipes period music in to comment on what's transpiring. "Little White Lies" and "Oh! What It Seemed to Be" are among them and make their sly point. Frank Sinatra recorded "Oh! What It Seemed to Be" in 1945, but the Sinatra tracks from the '60s as mood-setters are off-kilter.