Mention The Seven Year Itch to most people, especially to men of my generation, and they immediately think of Marilyn Monroe as the wind from a subway grate blows up her white dress.
That was the movie, from 1955.
But there was first a play, which opened in 1952 and ran for 1,141 performances, making it the longest-running non-musical play of the 1950s. Who knew?
I have sometimes groaned about The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves’ decision to choose a season this year almost entirely of plays that are the source of a movie or are taken from a movie from the 1950s, mostly the lighter movies, not the great ones. A welcome relief was the most recent production, an endlessly twisting murder mystery called Stranger in the Attic that Guild president Barbara Mulligan found and directed that had nothing to do with the ’50s or the movies.
Because the movies in the ’50s still operated under a fairly restrictive morals code, the stage play goes places that the movie can only fantasize about. In fact, the playwright George Axelrod, who co-wrote the screenplay with the director Billy Wilder, was so unhappy about Wilder’s changes that he disowned the movie and took his name off it.
One thing the play does not need is a blonde bombshell as The Girl, who in the movie becomes increasingly a fantasy figure. One could even argue that Monroe was miscast as The Girl, though it was a career-boosting performance. On Broadway, a petite brunette played The Girl.
So too at the Guild. Elle Klasing is a very attractive young woman. She does not imitate Monroe in any way. She is simply the young woman who has taken the apartment above the Shermans and who accidentally knocks a very heavy potted plant off the railing of her apartment’s little balcony and onto the chair in which Richard Sherman had just been sitting on his little balcony. And that is enough of a “meet cute” to get things going.
Jeff Lovell’s poor Richard Sherman suffers from what some psychologists were calling “the seven year itch,” a declining interest in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage. The Girl may be a way to scratch that itch. Richard’s wife and son are at the beach for the summer, and he joins them every weekend. But now he is in the apartment all alone. And he’s gotten acquainted with the pretty young girl one floor up.
Axelrod puts Richard through it. He thinks of his wife, whom he does love. Then he jealously fantasizes that she is having dinner with the poet at the beach, and who knows what else? He argues with his conscience. He reaches out to a psychologist. Should he continue with the young woman or should he not? Will he or won’t he?
She is also arguing with her conscience. His interest is flattering. He’s a nice guy. They get along. But he is married. She too is looking for something. Will she or won’t she?
The Seven Year Itch would seem to call for a two-story set, or some way of suggesting it. In the limited space at the Guild, director Kyle Morr and set designer Stephen Morr call upon the audience to imagine that a little space at the front of the house just off stage left is The Girl’s balcony and apartment, that a mysterious flight of stairs runs from the Shermans’ apartment to the ceiling, and the living room includes a piano. But given the full stage to work with, they fill it attractively with the Shermans’ living room, with a down right corner works for Richard’s balcony. Nathan Olvey designed lights and sound, and had to conquer equipment problems with the sound when I was there and occasional cue slips with the lights. Barb Mulligan dressed the cast appropriately, and director Morr handles props. Emily Fluchel is the stage manager and Abigail Alsmeyer the Assisstant Director.
These all ably supported a strong cast that paced the comedy well and created clear and believable characters. As mentioned, Jeff Lovell is Richard Sherman and Elle Klasing is The Girl. Jessica Kelly plays Richard’s wife Helen. She also does the voice-overs for The Girl’s conscience. David Zimmerman does Richard’s conscience and plays the poet in fantasy and hardly-threatening reality, and Dennis Crump is the psychologist Dr. Brubaker and a voice on Richard’s radio on the balcony.
I’m glad the Guild let me see this play, which, if not great, does seem to have more substance than the movie.
Photo by Robert Stevens
Elle Klasing as The Girl and Jeff Lovell as Richard Sherman in The Seven Year Itch.