The easy sophistication of the rich and elite was playwright Philip Barry's favorite drawing-room ambiance, and Theater Forty has buffed Barry's style with some immaculate touches.
"Animal Kingdom" (as in the human animal) opened in 1932, predating by seven years Barry's most popular play, "The Philadelphia Story." In "Kingdom," the central issue is a young man's conflict over choosing between two women--a basic animal dilemma, fashioned here with wit and grace by director Tom Henschel and a polished cast of nine.
Crucial to the production's success is the offhand sense of sweet living the actors manage to convey while they loop, glide and stumble in their effort to catch a falling star. The performers deftly capture subtle behavioral changes in the play's 18-month time span, most notably in the case of actor Jay Louden as the swain whose boyish enthusiasm turns dour when he realizes he married the wrong woman.
Louden anchors the proceedings with aplomb; if he can keep his forehead from glistening with perspiration in the first act, his performance will be even better.
As the loyal domestic retainer, cherubic, redheaded Will Nye's brash and uncouth valet almost steals the show. And the two key women--Donna-Jean Louden's calculating wife and Carol King's spirited, bravely lovesick artist--complicate the protagonist's life with vivid portrayals.
Among the production's handsome cast are George Manet's elegant, low-key brother; Joe Fisk's amiable writer (he wears great sleeveless cardigans) and Peggy Walton-Walker's addle-brained flamboyance. They lend the stage a good measure of its tight control and pen-and-ink clarity.
Theater Forty, celebrating its 20th year, can nearly always be counted on for fluid and artful physical values, and "Animal Kingdom" is no exception. Joanne McMaster's set design, Margaret Perry's fashion selections and Geoffrey Rinehart's lighting unobtrusively give form to the life on view. You rather half-expect Cole Porter to materialize as a house guest.
Performances at 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills (on the Beverly Hills High School campus), are Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through June 29. Information: (213) 277-4221.