Today’s formula for a romantic comedy is pretty clear: take two attractive actors and throw them in a highly unlikely situation. Maybe your Canadian boss needs to marry somebody in order to stay in the country or you have become the next target of your ex-husband who’s also a bounty hunter. As long as you pair up Jennifer Aniston with some hot guy (Matthew McConaughey is always a safe bet), you’ll probably sell some tickets. Just make sure you include a series of obstacles and challenges on their journey that allow the pair to argue and bicker until the end where they fall in love.
The comedy in today’s RomComs usually come through slapstick and awkward situations. Whether it’s a grown man who still lives with his parents or a woman who’s been a bridesmaid in 27 weddings, the humor stems from a seemingly ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Samuel A. Taylor’s “Sabrina Fair” is a product of the 1950’s and follows old conventions of subtlety in its humor and drama. The extremism of today’s comedy is replaced with dry wit. The journey and obstacles are replaced with a fairy-tale clash of social classes where a person of wealth falls in love with a someone from the working class.
The show is sure to draw interest based solely on its name alone. The stage play has been adapted into films in both 1954 (starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart) and 1995 (featuring Greg Kinnear and Harrison Ford). However, those that loved the films should approach this production with their expectations in check.
Sabrina (Susan Heyward) is the daughter of the chauffeur who works for the Larrabee family, a 50’s version of the Rockerfellers. Originally a shy and mild-mannered child, she returns from an extended stay in Paris as a fully blossomed woman of style, sophistication, and adventure. This Cinderella-like transformation surprises the Larrabee family sons: Linus Jr. (Todd Gearhart) and David (Tom Story). The majority of the show works the love triangle of Linus, David, and Sabrina in the backdrop of modern-day American royalty as we would know it.
Director Stephen Rayne freshens up the story by changing title character from White to African American; introducing a race-class subplot that works surprisingly well and does so without changing a single word in the original script. However the modern-day twist doesn’t solve the problem of an antiquated script that will get lost among today’s audiences. Certain references are so old they find unintentional humor in 2010. The funniest line all night was a statement that one should invest in stable, trustworthy American companies, like General Motors.
The one bright spot of the show is Heyward’s performance as Sabrina. She injects a much needed caffeine boost in every scene she’s in and made sure I didn’t totally doze off amongst the stiff banter between Maude (Helen Hedman) and Julia (Kimberly Schraf).
In the end, the show misses the one key ingredient that makes any romantic comedy old or new: chemistry. Linus Jr. puts on his best Don Draper impersonation with his aloof, cynical approach but doesn’t really win the audience over to believe he has a redeeming quality to earn Sabrina’s trust. Meanwhile, David is a playboy who comes off like the sort of stuffed shirt I’d encounter at Clarendon Ballroom. We are asked to make a big leap of faith in the end and accept a rushed ending and a dance number that would be a fitting conclusion to any Bollywood classic.
With comedy that’s too subtle to really entertain and a romance that never fully develops, you shouldn’t expect a Banana Split Sundae with this show- it’s more like a raspberry sorbet. Light and somewhat refreshing- but not really satisfying.
Running through October 24, 2010
Ford’s Theatre 511 Tenth St, NW, Washington, DC
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