In theater history, the names Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne still register strongly -- the husband-and-wife team enjoyed enormous popularity on the American stage from the 1920s into the '50s. (Some of us, quite wickedly, get a very different image of Lunt and Fontanne, thanks to the duo of "Funt and Mundane" portrayed in terrific skits by Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman.)
One of the most durable vehicles the Lunts rode in their career was a comedy called "The Guardsman" that they first played on Broadway in 1924. The play, translated from the 1910 Hungarian original by Ferenc Molnar, was thereafter considered just a light drawing room comedy.
That reputation is being challenged in a new, handsome Kennedy Center production of "The Guardsman" featuring a fresh translation by Richard Nelson that seeks to honor the darker, weightier tone and content of the original. (The long-standard version removed "significant chunks" of the play and dumbed-down others, Nelson writes in a program note.)
At the heart of the plot is a scenario rather like the one that propels Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" -- a man sets out to prove the faithfulness of his wife by trying to woo her in disguise. There is plenty of comic potential here, but, as Nelson's text makes plain and this production underlines, a bitter-sweetness dominates.
The central characters in question are idenitifed only as the Actor and the Actress, two celebrated performers in Budapest who recently married. The bloom in the marriage has wilted considerably, much to the husband's consternation. Still very much in love, he cannot fathom his wife's growing indifference.
Convinced he knows the type of lover she dreams of, the Actor creates that character, a dashing guardsman, and sets about pursuing the Actress. Things get farcical in due time, and in just the way you would expect -- the Actress, geared up for an assignation with her new solider friend, is surprised by the unexpected arrival of her husband instead.
The critical moment in "The Guardsman" is when the Actor reveals the disguise. Is the Actress surprised, or did she, as she maintains, really know all along? Is the marriage saved or merely shifted to a different plane?
The beauty and power of the play is that -- in another parallel with "Cosi fan tutte" (at least as widely interpreted by directors these days) -- there are no entirely clear answers. The only thing known for sure is that everyone is forever changed at the end, forever affected by the deception, by everything said and done, as well as everything left unsaid, undone.
Judging by the matinee I attended, the new production could use a dash more energy and electricity. Director Gregory Mosher keeps the pacing rather spacious in the first act, and never shifts into the highest gear thereafter, almost as if he were reluctant to let too much laughter obscure the deeper layers.
Sarah Wayne Callies looks striking as the Actress and captures the colder side of the character deftly. She is not quite as convincing when it comes to illuminating the sexy, alluring qualities that would explain her husband's emotional state.
As the Actor, Finn Wittrock nicely exudes boyish charm and petulance, and gets into the disguise business with a kind of understated panache.
Shuler Hensley is polished, if somewhat colorless, as the Critic, friend to the couple and frustrated admirer of the Actress. Julie Halston is delightfully brash as Mother, the Actress' confidante. And John Ahlin livens things up as the persistent Creditor.
Whether this rejuvenated "Guardsman" will take its place in the active repertoire and, in the process, earn the playwright proper recognition for his original intentions, remains to be seen. But the effort is commendable and so, quibbles aside, is this staging, which has been exquisitely designed by John Lee Beatty (sets) and Jane Greenwood (costumes).
The first scene of the second act, set in a lavish box at an opera house, is alone worth the price of admission. The long, side view encompasses the box seats (Act 1 of "Madama Butterfly" is in progress and can be faintly heard -- I think it's the superb de los Angeles/Bjorling recording); a private suite where the Actress and her wooing Guardsman can try to be alone; and the hallway outside.
It's a sumptuous image, not to mention a compelling space where some of the play's most eventful action can unfold in colorful fashion.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun