‘A Phoenix Too Frequent’ Review: Comedy Rises From the Ashes

Posted September 24, 2021

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Christopher Fry’s verse play is based on a tale from Petronius’ ‘Satyricon.’

By Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal | September 23, 2021

Christopher Fry is so completely forgotten on this side of the Atlantic that it’s hard to imagine how popular his verse plays once were, both here and in England. The original 1949 West End production of “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” his best-known drama, which starred John Gielgud and Richard Burton, transferred to Broadway the following year and ran there for 151 performances, a very long run for a show of its rarefied kind. It was so well-received that Decca actually recorded the production for release on LP, and three of Fry’s other plays also had Broadway runs. But the short-lived verse-play vogue of which his work was a part soon went the same way as Terence Rattigan’s “well-made” dramas of middle-class life, snuffed out by harder-edged playwrights like Arthur Miller, John Osborne and Tennessee Williams, and none of Fry’s plays have been staged on or off Broadway since 1958.

“A Phoenix Too Frequent,” Mr. Fry’s first big success, is a high comedy that dates from 1946. While it receives infrequent regional revivals in the U.S., most notably by Chicago’s Writers Theatre in 2001, I’ve never seen it (or any other Fry play) on stage. For this reason, I would have seriously considered flying out to see American Players Theatre’s new revival, directed by Keira Fromm, were it not for the convenient fact that APT is simultaneously making one of its live performances of “A Phoenix Too Frequent” available as a streaming webcast. For those from other parts of the country who find the trip to rural Wisconsin arduous, this webcast is ideally suited to home viewing: The stylish small-scale production, handsomely photographed in APT’s 200-seat indoor theater with a three-camera setup, features a young and accomplished cast, and Ms. Fromm, a Chicago-based director who first came to my attention in May with her Writers Theatre webcast of “The Last Match,” once again proves herself to be an artist of distinction.

Fry’s play is a three-hand theatrical version of a tale from Petronius’ “Satyricon” about Dynamene ( Phoebe González ) and Doto (Tyler Meredith), a grieving widow and her maidservant, who are resolved (the former far more than the latter) to fulfill time-honored local customs by entombing themselves with the body of Virilius, Dynamene’s freshly deceased husband. Then Tegeus ( Christopher Sheard ), a guard, sees a light in the tomb, goes inside, and sets in motion what Ms. Fromm describes in her director’s note as “a meet-cute in a mausoleum.” The results are by turns funny and sexy, with Doto serving as the acerbic wisecracker-in-chief who gets her fair share of Fry’s dry wit: “Madam had difficulty with the Town Council. They said / They couldn’t have a tomb used as a private residence. / But madam told them she wouldn’t be eating here, / Only suffering, and they thought that would be all right.”

Read the full Review here. (Behind paywall)