TEA AND THIEVERY: Deborah Kerr on autopilot

THE LAST OF MRS. CHEYNEY by Frederick Lonsdale. Directed by Frank Dunlop. Scenery by William Ritman. Costumes by Lewis Brown. Lighting by F. Mitchell Dana. With Deborah Kerr, Monte Markham, and Donal
Donnelly. At the Shubert Theater through December 9.

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney is the latest example of that shameless theatrical practice known as "trotting out the star." Frederick Lonsdale's play, which enjoyed a smashing success during London's 1925-26 season, is the kind of truly uninteresting parlor drama dusted off solely for the purpose of providing some aging actress with a safe vehicle. Many times, the mere appearance of the star is thrilling enough to redeem an otherwise meritless revival - for instance, Ingrid Bergman in Maugham's The Constant Wife or Kate Hepburn in A Matter of Gravity (a new play that might as well have been written in 1925). Unfortunately, that is not the case with The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. Deborah Kerr, whose performance is presumably the production's raison d'etre, graces the play with all the presence of a pancake, leaving the audience with a slightly foolish, What-am-I-doing-here? feeling.

Kerr plays the eponymous heroine, who makes her debut into London society as Fay Cheyney, widowed socialite recently imported from Australia. In no time at all, her unaffected charm has endeared her to titled bons vivants, who invite her to weekends, luncheons and fancy balls galore. In return, she entertains them with the help of a retinue of trusty manservants, including her indispensable butler, Charles. Moreover, Mrs. Cheyney has engaged the affections of two exceedingly eligible bachelors – the starchy but respectable Lord Elton (Stephen D. Newman), and the handsome, witty but thoroughly unprincipled Lord Arthur Dilling (Monte Markham).

The play opens on Mrs. Cheyney’s drawing room adjacent to the garden where an audibly wretched charity concert is being given. One by one, the distinguished guests stumble in to escape the racket, munch Twinkies with tea, and indulge in stilted gossip that doubles as exposition. Speculation centers on whether the clearly beloved Dilling will pop the question before Mrs. Cheyney trudges into wedlock with pompous Elton. Soon Deborah Kerr arrives, resplendent in filmy sky-blue gown and matching parasol, to shoo them back to the garden for the finale. After arranging plans for an ensuing weekend at one Mrs. Ebley's, they all agree to endure as much of the singing as they can before slipping away to dress for dinner. Relieved of her guests, the hostess carefully closes the curtains, sits down to amuse herself at the piano and is soon joined by her household staff, who begin quaffing ale and addressing her in a decidedly unservantlike manner. For - aha! - Mrs. Cheyney is really just a plain-Jane shopgirl from Clapham and her footmen really henchmen: they are all involved in a plot, masterminded by Charles, to relieve these unsuspecting swells of their valuables, particularly one spectacular string of pearls belonging to Mrs. Ebley.

How the heist is thwarted, the lords and ladies humiliated, and Mrs. Cheyney exposed, vindicated and married off is all quite contriyed, predictable, occasionally amusing, and so lacking in import that it needn't be recounted here. Still, it would seem that great fun could be had with the Jekyll-and- Hyde leading role; considering that the movie version of the play starred Joan Crawford, some extravagance seems appropriate, if not, in fact, required. Deborah Kerr, however, remains curiously passive; she seems primarily concerned with keeping her makeup intact. True, her smooth features, creamy complexion and Mo Dean hairdo make her beautiful to look at; but they hardly explain Mrs. Cheyney's appeal to her highly placed friends. Moreover, Kerr's notion of portraying an amoral shopgirl-turned-jewel-thief consists entirely of her sticking her tongue in the hollow of her cheek and tossing her head bravely. It doesn't help matters that Kerr is matched in blandness by Monte Markham, as her chief antagonist, Lord Dilling. He is so unbelievable as an unscrupulous bounder that his crucial action in the play -- threatening to expose Mrs. Cheyney's chicanery unless she goes to bed with him -- seems about as plausible as Marcus Welby's demanding a blowjob from a student nurse. Only the play's sentimental final scene - when, with a kiss, Markham proclaims "the last of Mrs. Cheyney and the first of Lady Dilling" - finds these two marshmallow mummers completely convincing. The scene is also completely sickening.

What makes this forgettable piece of fluff tolerable (though without ever quite redeeming it) is the excellent supporting cast. Almost all manage to take a slim sliver of character and transform it into a full-bodied person. Stephen D. Newman's Lord Elton could have been a cardboard blockhead, but every atom of his solidity quivers with indignation. Particularly admirable, because they have so little to go on, are Jeanette Landis as popeyed Lady Joan, Marti Stevens as an Eve Arden-ish Lady Frinton, and Joyce Worsley as the imperious Mrs. Ebley. It is on the smaller roles that director Frank Dunlop seems to have spent most of his energy; they are given a good deal of inventive business, and the play's best scene occurs over breakfast, during which the disgruntled houseguests hilariously vent their frustrations on the scrambled eggs. One wonders, though, why Dunlop - a director with respectable credits both here and in England - would bother taking on such a trivial project. The answer, alas, comes all too swiftly with the news that The Kingfisher -- another tepid trifle featuring big-name movie stars and directed by another esteemed Brit, Lindsay' Anderson -- recently broke the Shubert's box office records for a straight play. As that noted philosopher Janis Joplin once said, get it while you can.

Boston Phoenix, December 1978