GREAT BARRINGTON — Anne Undeland’s new play, “Mr. Fullerton” — which opened over the weekend in a spirited, if not fully satisfying, production by Great Barrington Public Theater at Bard College at Simon’s Rock’s Daniel Arts Center — begins with its two pivotal characters, novelist Edith Wharton and American journalist Morton Fullerton. The couple is in bed — in one of the many Paris hotels in which they carry out their torrid affair over a three-year period, beginning in 1908 and ending in 1911 in London — amid sadness, regret, loss, betrayal.
In this opening, the lovers are enjoying post-coital playfulness in the aftermath of lovemaking that has opened an entirely new world for the 46-year-old Wharton (Dana M. Harrison) for sexual fulfillment has been an alien concept, at best, over the course of 23 years of marriage to Edward R. “Teddy” Wharton.
Four years Edith’s junior, the bisexual Fullerton (Marcus Kearns) is all playfulness, wantonness and a practiced sexual inventiveness he has developed, and learned, through a succession of inconsequential love-’em-and-leave-’em relationships.
For Fullerton, Edith Wharton is a prize. They have a shared friend in Henry James (Glenn Barrett), who, after previous attempts to persuade Edith to meet Fullerton, finally convinces her to invite him to a dinner party she is hostessing in the Paris apartment she is renting from the Vanderbilt family during an extended stay in Paris.
It is two years after publication of “House of Mirth,” Wharton’s biggest commercial success to date, having sold just over 150,000 copies for which she has the admiration of and a bit of envy from James. She is the talk of society. Not only is Fullerton attracted by Edith’s celebrity, her reputation as “the Angel of Devastation” is an irresistible challenge. “I wonder what it’s like to survey the assembled company and know that half the room is terrified you’ll put them in your next novel and the other half is terrified you won’t,” he says to her.
Fullerton is a manipulative figure — part con man; part man-boy — who will bend circumstances to suit his needs and wants. He easily figures out the answers to Edith’s dinner party math game so he can be her dinner partner at every turn. “The point of the game is to mix people up,” she tells Fullerton with some irritation.
He slyly arranges things so he can be alone with Edith on a motorcar outing that was to have included Henry James. He pursues her resourcefully; charms her into bed and keeps her returning with his prowess.
For all her savvy, Edith is an easy mark for Fullerton. Her newfound delight in her sexuality makes her vulnerable and when betrayal comes, it comes hard for Edith. And she will turn her pain into art; her next novel — “Ethan Frome.”
The relationship between Edith and Fullerton stands at the center of “Mr. Fullerton” but it says a great deal that that relationship is the least compelling in director Judy Braha’s stylistically conflicted, robustly played, sweepingly staged production. Much of that has to do with a portrayal of Fullerton by Kearns that is not sharply defined. By the same token, Harrison’s Wharton is caught in the production’s overall lightness of being. Harrison’s Wharton is never quite the imposing figure she is discussed as being. Moreover, the chemistry between Harrison’s Wharton and Kearns’ Fullerton feels subdued; more talked about than palpable.
Ironically, GBPT’s production is far more compelling in its scenes between Edith and her Irish maid, Posy (Myka Plunkett in a sublimely rich portrayal), and Henry James (a terrifically at once expansive, clownish, self-deprecating and affecting Glenn Barrett).
Posy is, in effect, the play’s narrator, commentator. She addresses the audience directly; literally and figuratively sets the scenes. She not only attends to Edith’s needs, she tidies up her manuscripts, written on pieces of paper which Edith blithely tosses around her bed and bedroom floor, only to have Posy pick them up, order them and proudly experience being the first to read Edith’s work. But there is an intriguing story beneath Posy’s calculated theatricality. It has to do with the contrast between her working class upbringing and Edith’s milieu. Theirs is a complicated relationship that goes beyond a celebrated woman of letters and her handmaid. Posy has pride of ownership in her relationship with Edith. That sense leads her to take some liberties in her conversations with her employer. And for Edith comes an examination of her relationship with Posy; a recognition of how little she knows, let alone understands, of the world outside her world of privilege. Harrison and Plunkett work off and with each other with seamless synchronicity and nuance.
Even more catching are the sequences between Edith and Henry James, particularly in the play’s sobering second act. Barrett’s Henry James approaches overblown proportions at times but those exaggerations are emblematic of a man who, at the age of 65, is at an age of uncertainty, doubt, fear; who is feeling the chill of mortality.
Inspired by Wharton’s love letters to Fullerton, Undeland wrote “Mr. Fullerton” in reaction to Wharton’s celebratory awakening to the discovery of love in all its “bliss, heartbreak, madness,” Underland writes in her program notes. “It’s glorious, it’s hell, and I hope it happens to everyone.”
To be sure, there is a celebratory feel throughout a two-hour evening that is witty, urbane, period rom-com on the one hand and something more sobering and penetrating on the other. At the same time, those two sensibilities never quite merge into something cohesive, whole and sustainably fulfilling.