Although I have enjoyed all of this season’s productions at Asolo Repertory Theatre, “Our Betters,” which premiered March 13th, was my favorite! Light, frothy, elegant, and, in turns, downright hilarious, “Our Betters,” W. Somerset Maugham’s very clever play, was a delight.
Each of the shows this season has explored the significance and impact of money and power on the central characters, but where “Good People” was a brilliant indictment of the massive opportunity gap in the United States, “Our Betters” was a chance to see the downside of immense wealth without social responsibility.
Once again, the designers at the Asolo have created a very evocative set, in this case, a world of splendor and decadent wealth at the home of Lady Pearl Grayston, an American heiress who has married a British nobleman. Pearl, played with finesse, grace, and just the right amount of spunk by the glorious Katie Cunningham has created an extravagant life for herself full of parties with all the “right” people. But the price is far more onerous than the 8,000 pounds per year that she has to live on. To keep up appearances as the most powerful woman in London, she keeps a “sugar daddy” Arthur Fenwick, played with zest by Jonathan Epstein, on the side to bankroll her parties. He loves to watch her scheme and plan her social events like a game of chess, where she has ultimate control of the board.
What a fantastic turn of events for the dynamic best friends from Southie in “Good People,” Anne-Marie Cusson and Denise Cormier, who are now in the roles of Duchesse de Surennes and Princess Della Cercola, respectively. In “Our Betters” the two have the kind of bank accounts they could only dream of in “Good People” when they were playing Bingo and fretting about making ends meet. Would the friends believe that their alter egos are nearly as miserable, even though they are dripping with jewels and have servants at their beck and call?
The Princess has turned philanthropy into a pastime and speaks eloquently about helping the poor while the rest laugh at her scurrying about seeking support for her causes. She finds a kindred spirit in Fleming Harvey (Buddy Haardt) who has come to England in pursuit of his childhood love Bessie Saunders (Allie Henkel). Harvey is appalled by the machinations of the American upper-class expats and wants to convince Bessie to return to the United States.
The whole of “Our Betters” could be considered the education of Miss Bessie, as she learns about the life that will be in store should she follow in her sister’s footsteps, and marry the obsequious Lord Bleane (Matt Anderson). She knows his eagerness to marry her is largely based on her small fortune, but he also seems to genuinely care for the beautiful young American. She knows she holds the cards until they marry, when he may potentially take her for granted once his family’s bills are paid. Just as the other “landed gentry,” Lord Bleane has little more than his title remaining; but the American women desire the pomp and circumstance that comes with the aristocratic lifestyle.
Bessie begins to realize that American industriousness applied to British social climbing can have disastrous results. How fascinating that in the early twentieth century, Americans should desire the British way of life that we sought to escape so many years ago. Even today, we love the royals and “Downton Abbey,” so the British culture continues its hold on us. (Note our family spent six months in the UK last year ourselves!)
“Our Betters” is a delight – don’t miss it! For tickets go to www.asolorep.org
Photos by Frank Atura