It’s hard not to suspect Richard Sherman might have an easier time accepting middle age if he weren’t, well, Richard Sherman.
The central character of The Seven Year Itch, George Axelrod’s 1952 play that spawned one of the most enduring clichés about marital infidelity, is—to put it generously—hard to like. In this American Century Theater production, Sherman (Bruce Alan Rauscher) is weak-willed, insecure, exhaustingly self-involved, and really only concerned about how his actions will impact him, rather than anyone he hurts in the process. The cranky book editor doesn’t seem to care much for his well-meaning wife, Helen (a radiant Emily Morrison), who has gone away for the summer with their young son, leaving him to fend for himself. He does care about the fact that he’s rapidly getting older. And he’s also pretty concerned about getting into the pants of The Girl upstairs (Carolyn Kashner), with whom he has a meet-cute when she nearly drops a tomato plant on his head from the balcony above. The Girl appropriately isn’t even given a name; she’s only there as the naive object of Sherman’s desire.
Much of The Seven Year Itch takes place within Sherman’s head—scenes play out both as they occur and as he imagines them to occur, whether they’re wistful fantasies of his own sexual prowess or panicked overreactions to what sort of consequences might befall him. These fantasy scenes are often charming, though director Rip Claasen encourages his performers to play them over-the-top, which sometimes leads to comedy, and other times can be a little much to stomach. Lighting and subtle costume changes do much to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
While Rauscher effectively plays up Sherman’s neurotic nature, Claasen’s decision to cast an actor significantly older than the character in a play that emphasizing aging is a puzzling one. It does, though, act as a sort of commentary on 50 being the new 40, now that so many decades have gone by since the original production. Kashner does her best to bring a ditzy sort of appeal to The Girl, who’s really more progressive and intelligent than anyone really gives her credit for.
These days, Axelrod’s work is remembered much more today as a movie than as a play, thanks to the casting of Marilyn Monroe as The Girl in the 1955 film. But while the work feels dated in some ways, it feels progressive in others: after all, unlikable protagonists who refuse to learn anything from their mistakes are basically a fixture of entertainment in the 21st century.
The Seven Year Itch is at Gunston Theater through October 11. Running time is about two hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions. Tickets ($35 to $40) are available through the theater’s website. Find Missy Frederick on Twitter at @bylinemjf.