June 2, 1998

Miss Lily Bart is a beautiful young woman with no money but expensive taste. As portrayed by Lisa M. Bostnar in Jonathan Bank’s lovely revival of The House of Mirth, she is infinitely appealing: a vulnerable, gentle creature more or less cast adrift in New York society, which turns out to be a more dangerous place than you might expect. At the beginning of The House of Mirth, Lily just misses becoming engaged to Percy Gryce, a rich stuffed shirt who is among her many admirers; her realization that she could never really be happy in a loveless marriage of convenience has kept her from effectively competing for such a prized catch, and so she watches with almost ironic detachment as conniving Ewy Van Osburgh displaces her on Percy’s Sunday morning stroll to church.

Having forgone a life of comfort with Percy, Lily turns to savvy Wall Street tycoon Gus Trenor for help. She soon discovers that Gus expects more than gratitude in return, but her need to subsidize her extravagant lifestyle leads her to another married man, George Dorset, for support. At first George’s selfish wife Bertha encourages Lily’s harmless flirtation with her husband, the better to distract him from her own more serious affair with young Ned Silverton. But eventually this arrangement turns sour, and the play’s climax finds Lily banished not only from the Dorset home but from New York society.

Lily’s downward spiral, presented as the inevitable result of her own frivolous, misplaced desire for luxury and extravagance, transforms The House of Mirth from the comedy of manners that, on the surface, it appears to be to the tragic melodrama that it actually is. The script is by Clyde Fitch and Edith Wharton from her novel, and it dates from 1907; this is the first New York production of record since the original one more than ninety years ago. Like the Mint’s production last fall of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this revival of The House of Mirth affords us a unique glimpse at our social history as reflected by the theatre of a bygone era.

The production is fine. John Kristiansen’s costumes are lovely and appropriate, and Vickie Davis’s unit setting is supremely evocative and surprisingly effective, making excellent use of the Mint’s tiny stage. Lisa M. Bostnar is exquisite as Lily, capturing all of the guileless gallantry of this sad woman; at times she brings to mind Blanche DuBois, in the sense that Lily has come so poignantly and foolishly to the end of her rope; other times, she reminded me of Regina Giddens, a woman forced by the mores of her time to relinquish control of her life to the men around her. The House of Mirth is a splendid showcase for the talents of Ms. Bostnar, and her performance alone makes this production well worth seeing.

But of course others in the company are doing excellent work here as well. I was particularly struck by G.R. Johnson as callow Ned Silverton, Michael Stebbins as stuffy, henpecked Percy, Mike Hodge as expansive, egotistical Gus Trenor, and Jennifer Chudy as Gerty, Lily’s one true stalwart friend. Director Jonathan Bank moves the story along masterfully with great sensitivity and intelligence. He and his company paint a vivid picture of a milieu built around rumor and greed and self-interest, affording us the chance to see how far we’ve come—and, perhaps, how little things have changed—since Miss Wharton’s day.