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STAGE REVIEW

In ‘Mr. Fullerton,’ the seduction of Edith Wharton

Sarah Newhouse as Edith Wharton in "Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets" at Gloucester Stage Company.Jason Grow Photography

Novelist Edith Wharton wryly chronicled her Gilded Age, one ruled by male money, female modesty, and a sharply defined moral code. So the discovery of letters chronicling Wharton’s own steamy affair provides playwright Anne Undeland with a ready-made dramatic frame for “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets.”

Although the play opens in a hotel room where Wharton (Sarah Newhouse) has been enjoying the lovemaking skill of Morton Fullerton (Ryan Winkles), Undeland shifts our attention to Posy (Bridgette Hayes), the writer’s personal maid, who becomes the story’s narrator. Addressing the audience directly, Posy asks if we can keep a secret, but what follows never feels quite as conspiratorial as we are led to believe. Is it the three-year affair Wharton had with the charming but manipulative con man, eager to add the novelist to his list of conquests? Is it the emotional devastation his betrayal caused after introducing her to sexual pleasure two decades into her loveless marriage? Is it the possibility that the doomed love affair inspired the heartbreak of her novel “Ethan Frome”? Is Wharton fundamentally changed by her experience and newly values her loyal friends? Undeland offers several fascinating possibilities, but never quite weaves any of the threads together in a coherent way.

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With Posy as her narrator, Undeland stays at arm’s length from her character’s emotions. In an enjoyably exuberant performance, Hayes infuses life into this personal maid. Posy relishes her responsibility for organizing Wharton’s daily pages, treasuring her role as the first reader of the writer’s stories of love thwarted by the expectations of class and society. While keenly aware she serves at the whim of her employer, Posy is emboldened by her knowledge of Wharton’s secrets and occasionally oversteps in her efforts to protect her from certain heartbreak. Hayes’s balance of perkiness and determination wins our affection, but we’re not sure exactly what we’re rooting for.

With a monologue directed to the audience about opportunities available to young Irish emigres and another to Wharton about the man Posy gave up to go into service, Undeland seems to want to make allies out of two women divided by class. Despite Newhouse’s talent at revealing both Wharton’s vulnerable side and her haughtiness, the character remains aloof. Newhouse captures the girlish pleasure of being desired, and at one point shows empathy by awkwardly inviting Posy to join her on the couch, but Undeland never develops the moment, nor does she allow Wharton to show that she has been changed by the love affair. Winkles, as the callous Fullerton, perennially skating on the edge of scandal, is spot on with his irresistible pursuit of his prey and his subsequent dismissal of her, but he too, remains two-dimensional.

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The most winning character in “Mr. Fullerton” is Henry James, Wharton’s sometimes pompous, mildly jealous, self-absorbed colleague and friend. Joshua Wolf Coleman is delightful in his childish complaints about Wharton’s beloved dogs, his demands for Posy’s assistance with the most mundane activities, and his constant need for attention. The friendly but competitive banter between Wharton and James are some of the highlights of the play.

Director Judy Braha keeps the action moving briskly in and around Jenna McFarland Lord’s multi-tiered set, which allows us to shift between rooms in Wharton’s rented Paris apartment as well as the various hotel rooms where she and Fullerton had their liaisons. Her cast delivers strong performances, but she can’t raise the dramatic stakes without the support of the script. “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets” promises to share a secret, but there’s never any tension around what might happen when the secret is revealed.

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Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

MR FULLERTON, BETWEEN THE SHEETS

By Anne Undeland. Directed by Judy Braha. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. Through July 24. $25-$59. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com