Arthur Miller's The Crucible was an out-and-out diatribe against the evils of the McCarthy reign over the House Un-American Activities Committee and its witch-hunt for evildoers. Christopher Fry's 1949 The Lady's Not for Burning, on the other hand, was not. The British attitude toward what was going on in America was one of condescension toward HUAC's excesses. Now director Matt Kirkwood has decided that Fry's romantic comedy/drama really is about McCarthy's regime and in the process has lost a lot of the charm, poetic lyricism, and glimmer of the play. He sets the action in 1949 in a New England town, where everyone speaks in verse and the post-war attitudes play against both the rich humor and the soaring high style of the piece.
Thomas Mendip, returning from battle, is depressed over the state of his life and seeks a hangman's release as he invades the local mayor's home. Then arrives Jennet Jourdemayne, daughter of a deceased local alchemist, who has continued some of her father's experiments. The townsfolk call her a witch and surround the mayor's home. They are Fry's symbols of individuality and personal worth. The mayor's domestic world plays against and for them. The mayor's sister Margaret thinks only of the social swirl that spins around her, and her silly sons Humphrey and Nicholas, though grown, act like little sparring adolescents over everything, particularly the lovely young Alizon, taken from a convent to become the wife of one of them. The only stable person is Richard, the mayor's clerk, who inadvertently helps to arrange everything for a happy ending.
If one can look past Kirkwood's concept, which looks very much like a kinetic Frank Capra comedy, and into the writing, the magic is still there, but it's difficult to separate it from the sitcom performances, the roughhousing, and the Yankee flatness of tone. Out of the cast, three performances work: Dennis Gersten's Humphrey and Steve Reisberg's Nicholas, as bumptious as they should be, and particularly Brad Benedict's gleamingly innocent clerk Richard. They hear Fry's voice and listen to it. Laurie Kragness as the convent girl they joust over is also pretty solid, with a nice comic touch.
As the bumbling, rascally Mayor Tyson, Barry Thompson has a few moments but, along with Sylvia Little as his sister, looks like something from television. The biggest problem though, is in the two central figures: K.C. Marsh's flat Thomas, acting very much like Gary Merrill's best friend in a war movie, and Kelly Godfrey's colorless Jennet, a sort of hostess at Denny's; they have neither the magic nor the flair for high comedy that would bring them to theatrical life. But it's not really the fault of the actors. Kirkwood's concept is as illogical and unworkable as restaging Tennessee Williams' Streetcar in mid-19th century Moscow and calling it A Troika Named Desire.
"The Lady's Not for Burning," presented by the Other Side of the Hill Productions at the Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 8-Mar. 30. $15. (818) 759-3382, ext. 2#.