Review: 'Divinity Place' : A New Play by Greg Jones Ellis

Review: 'Divinity Place' : A New Play by Greg Jones Ellis

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

I recently had the opportunity to read a most promising new play, “Divinity Place,” by Greg Jones Ellis.  For those of us with a penchant for highflying, dysfunctional family comedy, this is just the ticket.  A dozen well-drawn characters from two families, and including a few outliers, take us through a day that may either result in the wedding from hell or rapprochement.  The play is set in the early 1940s at the beginning of WWII.

The happy couple, Jean and Buddy, have impulsively determined that tomorrow will be their wedding day, and that it will take place in the very home we’re in, on Divinity Place in Philadelphia.  Both families, a couple of priests and a very pregnant matron of honor are thrown into a slapstick whirlwind as they navigate the practical and emotional waters of pulling off the nuptials within twelve hours.

Jean is Catholic, Buddy is not.  While the earnest, young, Phillies fan, Father Brendan, has agreed to marry them, his superior, the blowhard Monsignor known as “Holy Joe,” has reassigned him to the ports to bless luggage headed for Europe.  Holy Joe will not allow the marriage unless Buddy signs an ad-hock agreement committing him to raising their inevitable children as Catholics.  So we’re off and running with a farce that will illuminate not only family friseurs but how religion can goad or ease them.  Needless to say, plenty of hilarity ensues, but not at the expense of some thoughtful passages that touch the heart and mind.

The play opens with members of a ladies musical club singing “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,”  

“In the shade of the old apple tree,
Sat two Irishmen drunk as can be.”

Along with that light-handed prelude, the first line of dialogue, referencing school teacher, Sister Euphemia, sets the play firmly within the world of an Irish Catholic family.  Jean, feeling it’s only a matter of time before Buddy is sent off for military service, doesn’t want to send him off without being his wife.  Hence, the shotgun nature of the wedding.  Sweet-natured Buddy has told Jean that he’s happy to raise their children as Catholics (he’s Presbyterian) but refuses to sign the agreement Holy Joe has drafted.  Shouldn’t the word of this unassuming, morally centered guy be good enough?  

As breakneck arrangements for the imminent wedding take off, familial resentments come to the fore.  A comic highlight is Jean’s older brother’s fiancé, who feels entitled to be the first to marry, arriving for the wedding in her own bridal gown.  Her mother has pinned it together so anyone who hugs her is likely to come away with bloody puncture wounds.  As time passes, the dress disintegrates, falling away piece by piece to reveal more and more of the spiteful, wannabe bride.  Jean’s older sister, the judgmental Marguerite, also feels that she should be married first.

Then there’s the conundrum of Jean not inviting mean old biddy, Aunt Mary, who raised the brood as their legal guardian following the death of their parents.  I was disappointed when she never appeared in the play, after all we’d heard about her, perhaps even defying our expectations.

Mr. Ellis has a terrific ear for distinctive dialogue, which gives each character their own sense of humor.  He may dip once too often into the well of pre-existing vernacular from those hard-boiled dame movies of the period, one of several genres he is both celebrating and sending up.  I also sensed a few anachronisms.  I’m not certain that the expression of someone being “bent out of shape” is period specific, and I could well be wrong, but it stuck out to me.  

The play is written in two acts, which Mr. Ellis may reconsider once he sees a production on its feet.  The first act curtain hangs on the arrival of Buddy’s father, about whom we know next to nothing.  It doesn’t make for much of a cliffhanger.  Turns out he’s a fascinating character but we don’t learn that until the curtain rises on the second act.  Reading the script, I would estimate the entire play running no more than 90-100 minutes, which doesn’t call for an intermission that would keep the action from galloping right along.  

Mr. Ellis seems to want to have his cake, to design the recipe, bake it and to eat it as well.  His ambition is admirable.  While I believe he has written a farce, there are a few overwritten passages, however heartfelt, that slow down the comic, frantic momentum required of the genre he is out to emulate.  Or is it a memory play, or a flat-out family comedy?  The play has not yet been produced but it surely will be.  (It is now available for licensing from stagerights.com)  I think that a strong director and dramaturg can take “Divinity Place” over the line from a good play to a splendid one.

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