Delaware Theatre Company takes on “The War of the Roses”

As the saying goes there’s a fine line between love and hate and hitting a rough spot in a relationship can easily push us over.

 

Warren Adler showed just how easily that line can get crossed in “The War of the Roses,” his iconic novel that spawned the blockbuster movie starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas back in 1989.

Now Adler has come up with a stage version of the novel whose title has become a synonym for the cruelty of modern divorce. The play which has already been performed internationally got its North American premiere Saturday night at a season-opening production at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington.

Like the film, the play chronicles the bizarre breakup of a seemingly blissful marriage. By all accounts, Barbara and Jonathan Rose are the perfect couple. Jonathan is a successful Washington, DC lawyer; Barbara an aspiring entrepreneur with a much sought-after pâté recipe. Their opulent home holds the rich antique collection that brought them together on Cape Cod as well as the familial love of two wonderful kids, Eve and Josh (both unseen).

But when Jonathan collapses from an apparent heart attack, Barbara’s indifference brings into relief the true state of their marriage. The war they wage against each other descends into a brutal “seek and destroy mission” for each other’s most prized possessions as their lives spiral into madness.

The play is based on the book, making it notably different from the 1989 cinematic production. First, while the movie offered first-rate black comedy, there is nothing intrinsically comedic about this look at divorce where each combatant thinks of “The House” as exclusively theirs (the words are often spoken in unison) and how far they will go to possess it.

Another difference is the delineation of the two main characters. The movie makes Barbara somewhat of a sympathetic character who is basically bullied by her husband and his inflated view of himself and their role in their lives. That depth is missing from the play. Witness the scene where she shows her lawyer the preserved tail of her dead cat. She seems to have more appreciation for the craftsmanship of the case (“They do nice work, don’t they?”) rather than sorrow over the loss of the animal.

In addition, whereas the movie is narrated by only one attorney (played by director Danny DeVito) who counsels his client about the perils of divorce, the play is narrated by dueling divorce lawyers who promote their own selfish interests by manipulating and goading their clients into ratcheting up the mayhem.

No stage production could hope to duplicate the special effects of the cinema, but scenic designer Paul Tate DePoo III outdid himself with a stunning and richly detailed two-tiered set of the Roses’ opulent home. The sold-out audience let out a collective gasp of appreciation when it was unveiled.

Director Bud Martin—now in his fifth season as executive and artistic director at Delaware Theatre Company—helmed the production and assembled a stellar cast. Christine DeCicco is an intense and outspoken Barbara Rose, obsessed with her “things” and determined to make a name for herself in the catering business. Jack Noseworthy offers a confident yet genuine Jonathan Rose. He comes to the good life from humble beginnings and loves what his hard work has earned him.

Cameron Folmar and Lenny Wolpe turn in over-the-top performances as the dueling lawyers Thurmont (for Barbara Rose) and Goldstein (for Jonathan Rose), respectively. (These two actors received more enthusiastic applause than the principals.) Folmar’s Thurmont is a dandy with an upper-crust accent and the right bona fides who dispenses counsel in between bouts of tennis, fencing and fishing. Wolpe is convincing as Goldstein, a rabbi-turned-hardscrabble attorney who drops pearls of wisdom from the Talmud and quips with the precision of a borscht belt comic.

Cynical as it may be, “The War of the Roses” poses questions that may well cut a bit too close to the bone for many: do we own our possessions or do they own and define us? Is revenge not taken the best gift we can give ourselves?

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