At ‘The Bachelors’ Tea Party,’ a Dynamic Duo, All Dolled Up

Clyde Fitch and Elsie de Wolfe, played by Jody Flader Photo credit Carrie LeonardCarrie Leonard Clyde Fitch and Elsie de Wolfe, played by Jody Flader

At Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, a glass flute and tulip-adorned sugarcube is placed before each guest. An amuse bouche is served, along with tea. The Gilded Age farce begins. Elsie and Bessy enter, chittering aphoristic secrets of success with a telling grace. Elsie performs a headstand, her poofy knickers signaling the Mad Hatter-like atmosphere that enlivens the rest of “The Bachelors’ Tea Party.”

These are, it should be noted, the representations of real-life early-20th-century New York socialites Elsie de Wolfe, an actress turned trailblazing interior designer who counted the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor as clients, and Elisabeth Marbury, the pioneering play broker who represented Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. They are theatrical, to say the least (Ms. de Wolfe, a.k.a. Lady Mendl, actually did perform headstands, at times to scandalous effect) and Jody Flader and Liz Eckert caricature them expertly: they’re every bit as charmed by their competitive, backhanded compliments as the audience is.

Good thing, because they carry the show de facto. Although the other characters are equally charming, they are silent — being puppets. The humor derived from this ingenious set-up is hard to describe: no analysis of narcissism will feel as outrageously perfect as seeing Elsie asking a question of a red-cheeked, smiling porcelain doll, waiting a couple seconds, and then exclaiming, “I knew you’d say so!” In another scene one of the dolls, representing the then-popular playwright Clyde Fitch, “tells” a droll story that has the two ladies all but cracking up.

The Bachelors' Tea Party featuring Liz Eckert and Jody Flader Photo by Carrie LeonardCarrie Leonard Liz Eckert and Jody Flader

The visual strength of the piece — puppets, miniature tea set and all — underscores the spiritual vacuity of the age. The ladies speak of the piles of “potential” Anne Morgan has (her father is J.P.); Bessy says George Bernard Shaw, one of her clients, “can preach socialism as long as he pays the bills”; Elsie starts a production company “to showcase her talents,” where she will play all the leads… but “only if they fit me.”

Unfortunately, the ironies of the piece seemed to be lost on the audience. Probably because of the costly (and delicious, it must be said) tea service attached to the performance, the younger audience for whom this piece seems to be intended will not see it. A shame, because what the piece needs most desperately is a room full of twenty-year-olds guffawing at the mistakes of their forerunners.

“The Bachelors’ Tea Party,” Nov. 18 and 25; Dec. 2, 9, 16, at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, 56 Irving Place (between 17th and 18th Streets); $15 tickets plus $40 charge for tea service,; (212) 410-2830