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Theater Review: The Beaux’ Strategem at the Everyman

June 21, 2013

By George Farquhar, Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig
Through June 30 at the Everyman Theatre

Jack Archer, the leading character in The Beaux’ Stratagem, has a habit of stepping out of the action, strolling to the front of the stage and talking to us in the audience about the show we’re watching. At one point he says that in a play like this, unlike real life, the ending is never in doubt; the only question is how to get there.

He’s got a point. In a Restoration comedy such as this one, written by George Farquhar in 1707, we know from the opening moments that the long frustrated lovers will all participate in a joint wedding ceremony in the final scene. But how will we get there? In the current production at the Everyman Theatre, the answer is: not briskly enough and not wittily enough.

Tempo means everything in a comedy such as this. Whether the form is Restoration comedy, French farce, or American screwball, each new joke must take hold before the effect of the last one has worn off. In the hands of a writer such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Georges Feydeau, or Philip Barry, the comic bits pile up on top of one another until we are in a continual state of off-balance dizziness, too busy laughing to notice the contrivances of the plot. In The Beaux Stratagem,however, there are too many lulls between jokes, too many chances to notice the creaky machinery of the story.

It’s not that there are too few jokes but that they are so weak, each one fading out as soon as it concludes before the next one can commence. Farquhar lacked the epigrammatic sharpness of Oscar Wilde, and Thornton Wilder abandoned his attempt to condense and quicken the 1707 script between writing Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. The Wilder estate asked contemporary playwright Ken Ludwig (Crazy for You and Lend Me a Tenor) to finish the lapsed adaptation, but Ludwig wasn’t able to raise the laughter quotient either.

A milestone on the Everyman Theatre’s march from minor-league local theater to major-league regional theater was its 2006 production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, a second-wave Restoration comedy that went from laugh to laugh so quickly, so surely, that we had no chance to recover from the left-hand jab of bawdy slapstick before the right uppercut of a jewel-like epigram knocked us over. That show’s director, Vincent Lancisi, and two of the leading actors, Megan Anderson and Bruce Nelson, have returned for The Beaux’ Stratagem, but the effect couldn’t be more different. Sensing that the Farquhar-Wilder-Ludwig script is undernourished, the cast overcompensates by camping it up and telegraphing punch lines—and that just makes things worse.

Nelson is a kind of comic genius, but as Boniface the innkeeper and Foigard the French parson, the actor has little to work with but a prosthetic beer belly in the first role and a bouffant wig in the second—and he overtaxes their possibilities. Anderson is Kate, the young, pretty and unhappy wife of Sullen (Clinton Brandhagen), a drunken country squire. Kate advises her sister-in-law Dorinda (Katie Solomon) against marriage, but her sharp-tongued observations aren’t nearly sharp enough. Lady Bountiful (Kathryn Kelley), the mother of Sullen and Dorinda, is notorious medical quack, but she is a pale echo of Moliere’s similar characters.

Jack (Danny Gavigan) and his friend Tom Aimwell (Yaegel Welch) are impoverished gentlemen who have turned to highway robbery and romantic deception to replenish their coffers. As they enter Boniface’s inn, Jack pretends to be the servant of Tom, who takes far more pleasure in the deception than we do. Arriving soon after this duo is Gloss, who gladly explains to Boniface why his two chosen professions, highway robber and clergyman, are such a perfect fit. Taking off his robber’s cloak to reveal his Anglican vestments, the bald, round Martin delivers one of the show’s best scenes by demonstrating how his intimate knowledge of evil lends a convincing edge to his sermons on Judgment Day.

Jack and Gloss make plans to burgle Lady Bountiful’s house, but when Jack and Tom enter the house under false pretenses to scout it, Jack falls in love with Kate and Tom with Dorinda. Now what should they do? How can they thwart Gloss’s plans and undo their own lies to win the women they desire? Well, as Jack has said, we all know how it will end, but how will we get there? With too leisurely a pace and with no more than a handful of amusing moments.

Daniel Ettinger’s handsome black-and-white set doesn’t help, nor do David Burdick’s over-the-top costumes (Dorinda’s hat seems to have cost an entire flock of ostriches their tails). Nor do the stand-out performances by Martin, Brandhagen and Dorea Schmidt as Boniface’s cleavage-brandishing daughter and barmaid. Nor does the expanded space of the new Everyman home. The humor in this production of The Beaux’ Stratagem proves as lackluster and perfunctory as its sword fights.