Translating the ironies, the ethical and moral observations of Edith Wharton's ``The Custom of the Country'' posed some sizable challenges. Jane Stanton Hitchcock's adaptation at the Second Stage's McGinn/Cazale Theater makes an honorable attempt to solve the difficulties and to create dramatic substance from a kind of storytelling that doesn't always lend itself to projection in theatrical terms. The resultant comedy of contrasted manners and mores rewards the attention without stirring the emotions. ``The Custom of the Country'' concerns the relentless striving of Undine Spragg (Valerie Mahaffey), the pretty-as-a-picture girl from the Midwestern town of Apex who marries her way to the top of the social scale, reaching for the happiness that eludes her. ``To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence,'' writes Mrs. Wharton. Remaining ``insensible to the touch of the heart,'' Undine was ``a creature of skin-deep reactions.''
Mrs. Hitchcock employs the men in Undine's life as a kind of Greek chorus to handle some of the novel's complexities, observations, and exposition. Besides participating in scenes of plot development, these exploited males step out of the action from time to time to comment on Undine and deliver the subjective views that men consider objective. The participant-commentators are Undine's doting papa (Nesbitt Blaisdell), the New York socialite whose life she ruined (Michael Countryman), the upper-class cad
(John C. Vennema) who escaped her, the susceptible French count (David Rasche) who became her third husband, and her first husband (Trey Wilson) -- the ``nobody'' with whom she eloped and whom the Spraggs forced her to divorce, not realizing he would become a billionaire.
It is Elmer Moffat, the last-mentioned of Undine's male train, who turns out to be the most interesting character in ``The Custom of the Country.'' A straight-talking pragmatist, likable for his humorous candor and his unexpected defense of women, Elmer proves almost -- but not quite -- a match for the heartless adventuress. Mr. Wilson plays him with the expansive confidence of a self-made man. If Miss Mahaffey, ravishingly pretty and picturesquely gowned by David Murin, cannot quite match him, it is be cause the role of Undine never rises above the level of spoiled petulance. As the bemused count observes of Undine, ``Her entrances were always triumphs but they had no sequel.''
The performance staged by Daniel Gerroll meets the civilized standards of a dramatization that recalls goings- on in a world of privilege in the years immediately preceding World War I. Kate Edmunds has designed a mostly bare but elegant ballroom setting, the mirrored doors of which open onto assorted mini-vistas. Ann G. Wrightson's lighting is suitably luminous. Short Change Play by Geoffrey Gordon. Directed by Fred Kolo.
``Short Change'' employs an offbeat humor to unfold the experiences of an odd quartet of undergraduate housemates. If his first full-length work is not quite a full-bodied play, Geoffrey Gordon seems to know the academic territory and its folkways. The new comedy at the Samuel Beckett Theatre ``takes place in an off-campus apartment near an urban university.''
The foursome assembled by Mr. Gordon is moving into an almost unfurnished flat, which they intend to share until graduation or some untoward event parts them. The group includes Benjamin, a romantic writer-type (Raphael Sbarge); the fatally ill Rayna (Lea Floden), who is trying cheerfully to cope with the side effects of her medical treatment; Daniel (Josh Pais), a mournful would-be actor; and Fred (bespectacled David Breitbart), the disorganized organizer and all-around campus busybody. Fred's weirdo a ttitude even colors his homosexual interest in Daniel.
In addition to quite a lot of funny wisecracking, ``Short Change'' observes the developing relationships among the group and the crises they sometimes generate. Although Rayna's affair with Benjamin is handled with casual frankness, Gordon avoids almost totally the four-letter words that have become the vogue in latter-day playwriting. The stark setting (with three slammable doors) was designed by Charles McClennahan, with costumes by Laura Drawbaugh and lighting by Michael Moody. Producer Fred Kolo dir ected.