Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) is known in the theater-history books as the master of the well-made play. To Shaw, however, he was the emperor of "Sardoodledom," and time seems to have accepted that judgment. American Theatre Arts' production of "A Scrap of Paper" (1860) offers a rare opportunity to catch a Sardou play on the hoof.
On this evidence, Sardou's kind of well-made play depended on his audience's willingness to close its eyes to certain improbabilities in the interests of thickening the plot. Here, for instance, everything depends on keeping a certain letter out of the hands of a jealous husband. Once the letter is recovered, the sensible thing, one would think, would be to throw it into the fire.
But then the play would be over. So the viewer agrees to accept the moment when Sardou's heroine decides, after all, to hold onto the letter. The understanding is that this will lead to all sorts of amusing complications and a charming denouement. Hang common sense, this is theater!
The viewer is more likely to make that concession if he's already feeling a touch giddy, like a man on his third glass of champagne. Presumably, Sardou's players were expert at eliciting that frivolous mood from the house. Surely, too, they had an orchestra tootling something peppy in the pit as members of the audience took their seats, and a red velvet curtain to whet the viewer's anticipation as to what was behind it.
At ATA, we enter a deadly quiet auditorium to face a dimly lit set by Robert Green. We sit silently reading our programs like students waiting for the pencils to be passed out at final exams. After a while, the lights go down, and then up, and the actors begin.
Alas, the play feels like their final exam. The subject is "period style" and director Tom Henschel's players display an awareness of its essentials, such as the need to speak up and not slouch. What they haven't mastered--especially the principals (with one exception)--is how to be at ease in period style.
Voices are strained, bodies stiff. A maid hitches up her breasts in the mirror and it seems a totally imposed movement, which explains why nobody laughs. The costumes, by Suzanne Cranfill, are handsomely cut and nicely detailed, but the actors don't wear them with pleasure, as Sardou's expensive Parisians would.
The performances aren't awful, but they're dutiful. It's more like taking medicine than sipping champagne. Add a ton of first-act exposition (not really clarified by the "additional material" contributed by Alan Rosen) and the experience is not joyous.
But when Erick Poppick is on, as the jealous husband, we see what "A Scrap of Paper" (and presumably other examples of Sardoodledom) could be in the hands of a fine repertory company.
It's not a particularly gratifying part, but Poppick has a complete grasp of it. We see the pouter-pigeon exterior of a man totally committed to propriety. But we also see a counter-strain of instability when he's seized by jealousy or contrition. The man's really a weather vane, and rather ashamed of it. Not only is that funny, it's endearing.
Could other characters in "A Scrap of Paper" yield such interesting results? At least two could: the wife's wily-in-a-good-cause female cousin and the wife's former suitor. On paper, these two suggest Beatrice and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing"--two high-spirited adversaries wooing each other under the guise of war. At ATA, Mary Bomba is tentative and Cary Calkins callow, and there's no energy between them.
The other principals are equally constrained, with Sandy Becker having the best excuse as a young fellow who is supposed to be cowed by such sophisticated company. Becker's enunciation isn't excusable, however. The word is soubrette , not superet --that's something you shop at.
The supporting players tend to be older and more relaxed--David Sage, for instance, as an old friend of the family with a good reason for being relaxed: His wife has just left him. In the world of Sardou, that's no tragedy.
Complementing Cranfill's costumes, Green's gallery setting is attractive and even opulent, considering the budget. But it would have been helpful in the first scene to provide the audience some visual clue as to the fact that the room in question had been shut up for three years. Sardou's tall stories call for the supportive detail. 'A SCRAP OF PAPER' Victorien Sardou's play, at American Theatre Arts, 6240 Hollywood Blvd. English version by Leonie Gilmour, with additional material by Alan Rosen. Director Tom Henschel. Scenic design Robert Green. Costume design Suzanne Cranfill. Lighting design Magda Gonzalez. Music Elaine Vaan Hogue, Gary Takesian. Production manager Margaret Perry. With Cindy Friedl, Leda Siskind, Sandy Becker, Barbara Stewart, Lou Fant, Jeanne Hepple, Cary Calkins, David Sage, Eric Poppick, Cathryn Perdue, Mary Bomba. Plays Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. Closes June 29. Tickets $9-$12; (213) 466-2462, (213) 466-2463 TDD.