Sometimes getting lost can help in finding love

Review: `She Stoops to Conquer' has its shortcomings, but it still has its funny, identifiable moments.

March 09, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

You could argue that all the comic confusion of She Stoops to Conquer - the mishaps, the mischief-making, the missive sent awry - begins when a man gets lost and won't ask for directions.

In a way, it's reassuring to note that human nature has changed so little since 1773, when Oliver Goldsmith's play first was produced. We recognize ourselves in the characters we see on stage in the Folger Theatre's solid production, and we laugh with recognition.

She Stoops is based on a practical joke played on Goldsmith as a young man, when he was tricked into mistaking a country home belonging to a friend of his father's for an inn. Goldsmith ordered the "inn-keeper" about in a cavalier fashion, and didn't discover his error until the next morning, when he tried to settle his bill.

In Goldsmith's play, the purpose of the visit by Charles Marlow is to assess a prospective match with Kate Hardcastle, the daughter of his father's best friend - a union that seems doomed when Marlow doesn't realize he is in the home of his prospective in-laws, and treats Kate like a barmaid. (Tony Cisek's set goes a long way toward convincing the audience that the young man could make such an egregious error. Cisek's manor house has the feel of a rustic lodge, with its stone fireplace decorated with antlered animal heads, and simple wooden benches for seating.)

But that's only half of the romantic turmoil; Marlow's best friend, George Hastings, is planning to elope with Kate's cousin, Constance Neville. Their courtship is opposed by Mrs. Hardcastle, who wants to keep Constance's fortune in the family by marrying her off to her foolish son, Tony Lumpkin.

It might not always seem that way, but She Stoops really is Marlow's play. In some productions, including one last year at Center Stage, Tony dominates the action. A good-hearted profligate whose exterior silliness masks an underlying cleverness, Tony is one of the great comic figures in English literature - and not so incidentally, has personality characteristics in common with the playwright.

In other productions, the balance tips toward the sprightly, resourceful Kate. She never loses control, and her stratagems bring about the play's happy ending.

But Marlow is the only character to undertake a psychological journey. When the play starts, he suffers from a condition that would be described today as "The Madonna/Whore Complex." He divides women into two camps: high-born ladies whom he reveres but who leave him cold, and low-born lasses whom he lusts after but can't respect. He has to learn how to reconcile his double vision by treating a lady with desire, and a servant with dignity.

For the play to achieve its full comic potential, Marlow's journey has to be made clear. During the performance that I attended (the final premiere), what was lacking was urgency, the sense that anything was at stake. It was missing from David Fendig's depiction of Marlow, but also it was missing from the show as a whole.

Theatrical energy is a funny thing. It's the single most important ingredient for determining the success or failure of a particular performance, but it can be present one night and absent the next for entirely mysterious reasons.

Taken separately, the actors couldn't be faulted. Kate Eastwood Norris sparkles as Kate Hardcastle, giving her character a quickness of movement that suggests her quickness of mind. Bruce Nelson's portrayal of Tony is soft-edged, but hilarious nonetheless; the scene in which he goads his mother relentlessly while pretending to play along with her scheme to steal Constance's jewels is particularly funny. Catherine Flye digs into the vain and self-important (but not heartless) Mrs. Hardcastle with zest, and Ralph Cosham gives Mr. Hardcastle a humorous, aggrieved whine when he's being bossed about by his best friend's son.

But as fine as the individual performances may have been, as a unit, the actors didn't gel. On occasion, two actors spoke their lines on top of each other - a sure sign that they weren't really listening. The result? It was as if each actor was in his or her own separate play.

It's possible that they regained their spark the following night, but I can comment only on the performance of She Stoops to Conquer that I saw. Let's call it a draw.

She Stoops to Conquer

Where: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capital St., S.E., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, some Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 31.

Admission: $25-41

Call: 202-544-7077

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