Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), pen name Saki, was a British writer whose dark, bizarre and witty stories satirized Edwardian society and culture. His characters take almost as much delight as the author in the discomfort, misfortune, and often destruction of those who were conventional and pretentious. Considered a master, he’s often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. I would add Edward Gorey. In a 1978 introduction to a Saki anthology, Emlyn Williams suggests the name is an homage to the cupbearer in the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam.” As Monro was born in Myanmar, it seems feasible.
Wolves at the Window is Toby Davis’ succinct dramatization of ten stories. The first act starts slowly with a lesson about presumption and judgment during which we notice the beautiful use of language rather than become affected by the situation. It takes place at “dusk…an hour put aside especially for those who, as far as the day has gone, have fought and lost.” This is followed by a snippet concerning the difficulty of marketing a breakfast cereal, which is, as the head of the company calls it “beastly muck” and describes a psychologically clever sales premise.
The third story is too maniacally presented but lightened and brightened by the appearance of a goat and a tiger, whose rhyme, reason and physicality will elicit the first long smiles, in many cases becoming giggles. (Bravo Maureen Freedman, whose simple—I don’t know whether to call them props or costumes—are inspired!) The fourth story prefaces a later one and, at the same time, introduces—the wolves. It’s serviceable. The fifth effectively upends the pretension of normalcy “on the occasion when one’s doctors have advised complete rest.” One Mr. Framton Nuttel fails to discern things are seldom what they seem. (It’s Hitchcockian) The sixth is a prime example of Saki’s deftly penned (and portrayed) contempt for the stuffy, preaching upper class, one of whom meets her comeuppance to the great joy of her children. It’s a tale within a tale whose moral cautions against being “horribly good.” An indication of better to come.
Act Two is where the action (and emotion) is. In the next story, a stubborn, pragmatic wife at her husband’s country house, distains possibilities outside her realm of limited experience only to be “appropriately” punished by vengeful gods. Her husband had, after all, warned her. It’s rather gothic and great fun to watch.
Insert a follow-up on the breakfast cereal, now a thundering success, though no more palatable…followed by a story about the unexpected result of a supercilious house pet “instructed (successfully) in the art of human speech.” (The cat is worthy of a drawing room comedy!) There’s a shipboard reunion of a widow and widower trying to sort out how many children they actually have between them and whether, should they finally marry, such a brood is…well, practical. The deadpan delivery makes this close to a vaudeville routine. An ode to African wildlife (metaphors) provides a John Cleese-like turn. And the tale of a prized doggie whose adoration and excessive care prevents its mistress from accommodating her husband…until the husband finds out a completely surprising truth.
The last story involves the conclusion of an ancient family land feud in—wait for it— the Carpathian Mountains. One stormy night, an act of God, a single fallen tree branch, pins down the heads of both families who are out in the disputed woods trying to kill one another. Their joint suffrage starts poorly, of course, but a truce is curiously (and believably) reached, only to have fate show its perverse hand. This is another gothic piece. Or perhaps, a Roger Corman film.
The cast is comprised of four actors doing more than yeoman-like work. Gus Brown (sitting on trunk, photo above) read Classics at Cambridge. It shows. He’s “the shorter half” of a BBC sketch act. This also shows. A versatile and game player, Brown represents Saki’s recurring hero/everyman Clovis Sangrail, and the splendid, supercilious talking cat, Tobermory, among others. Jeremy Booth begins the evening rather vaguely, but excels in his roles of a little boy on a train and the sinister gentleman, Mortimer, who warns his wife with barely hidden gleeful anticipation of the worst. Sarah Moyle is best when acting repressed. (Booth and Moyle, photo at top). Otherwise her characters often become caricatures. Anna Francolini’s roles are fleshed out with stylistic tics and body language drawing the focus of the audience. (See last photo above at left). She’s equally adept at the aforementioned know-it-all wife, the selfish coddling owner of Louis, (the tiny doggie,) and an angry Carpathian.
Thomas Hescott does an excellent job of directing, evoking scenery we cannot actually see and creatures not actually there as well as danger both implied and “happening.” The stage is well used despite only minimal furniture and propping by the previously noted, extremely imaginative Freedman.
Wolves At the Window is a slight piece and uneven, but overall entertaining. It’s an aperitif, or several, rather than a meal. Recommended for Anglophiles, fans of the short story, of pilloried status-quo and the darker side of nature.
Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Wolves At The Window (And Other Tales of Immorality)
By Toby Davis’ (after Saki)
Part of: Brits Off Broadway
59 East 59 Theater
Through Sunday December 6
Tues. 7:15 p.m.; Wed. through Fri. 8:15 p.m.; Sat. 2:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.; Sun. 3:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.