Harry Hunter was born at the wrong time. In the 21st century, there would be many ways for him to keep his manic depression under control, and he could publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. But in the late 19th century and early 20th century, as a member of the stodgy upper class of New York society … no such luck.
Harry is, in many ways, the central character of “Leisure, Lust,” which is being presented through Nov. 12 by Art House Productions in its new space, in the Cast Iron Lofts building in Jersey City. But attendees may, naturally, be more curious about the character’s wife, Grace, since Harry Hunter is based (very loosely) on Teddy Wharton, and Grace is based (also very loosely) on Teddy’s much more well known wife, the writer Edith Wharton.
(I should add that even saying that these characters are “based” on them might be going too far, though. “I dreamt on what their marriage could have been like, the horror, the mystery, confusion, restraint, resentment and love that must have existed and grown between them,” playwright Sara Farrington, of Maplewood, writes in the program. “But … ‘Leisure, Lust’ is entirely a work of my imagination and my own dramatic license.”)
The full play is actually called “Leisure, Labor, Lust.” Edith is the focus of the first act, “Leisure,” while Harry dominates the third act, “Lust.” The second act, “Labor,” is told from their servants’ perspective, and is not being included for most of the Jersey City run; it will be added in a staged reading format on Nov. 12, the final day, only.
There are four actors in this play, but “Leisure, Lust,” unconventionally, uses only two in each act.
In “Leisure,” Gabriella Rhodeen plays Grace, who is shown both before and after Harry’s suicide, contemplating having an affair with Harry’s friend, Delancey, and then, after the suicide, reeling with grief. Stephanie Regina plays Lucy, Grace’s maid, as well as Harry, Delancey and various other characters.
Rhodeen and Regina do not appear in the second act. Instead, Kyle Stockburger plays Harry, at various stages of his life, and Christopher Tocco plays Delancey, and Harry’s butler Gilbert. Delancey, we learn, had had an affair with Harry, long before Delancey met Grace.
(I assume “Labor” focuses on Lucy and Gilbert, which would give everything a nice, sturdy symmetry.)
Anyway, if all that — and the fact that the play keeps moving back and forth in time — seems confusing to you … don’t worry about it. The actors make all the characters distinct, and director Marina McClure builds in enough cues so that it is not hard to keep track of what’s happening. The space is small enough — there were just a few rows of seats, on all four sides of the stage — that it was very easy to pick up every nuance of the actors’ facial expressions, as well. The only problem with the “in-the-round” stage configuration was that actors occasionally faced away from you, which made the dialogue hard to hear.
Throughout the play, the privileged lives that Harry and Edith lead are vividly contrasted to the working class realities of Lucy’s life, as a maid, and Delancey’s early life as a dock worker (before he moved his way up in society). Lucy and Delancey seem strikingly un-neurotic in comparison with Harry and Edith.
Farrington adds some black humor here and there. But it is the vivid misery of Edith and, especially, Harry — trapped by the realities of who he is and the unforgiving world in which he lives — that stay with us the most.
“Leisure, Lust” is a powerful, serious and frequently subtle play, and it’s a sign of Art House Productions’ lofty artistic intentions that it chose to launch its new space with such a work.
“Leisure, Lust” will be presented by Art House Productions through Nov. 12; visit arthouseproductions.org.