For all the caffeine consumed onstage, Coffee With Richelieu never generates much of a buzz. Perhaps that's because while the actors sip espressos, a skim latte, a cafe mocha and more, the audience is given just a few watered-down ideas.
Playwright Norman Allen has taken the old tale of The Three Musketeers and bumped it out, in the way that homeowners bump out a rancher that's charming and cozy but a bit too small for their growing family.
In this case, what seems to be too small for Allen is 17th-cen- tury notions of good vs. evil. So he opens up the classic hero quest of a young man's journey to adulthood with what he conceives of as a Parisian cafe "out of time."
Here, Cardinal Richelieu tries to win the brave young d'Artagnan over to his side, to persuade him that might equals right, that the end justifies the means. Their conversation is joined by such disparate historic figures as Queen Victoria (the nature of love); Mahatma Gandhi (the power of the individual); and Jackie O. (beats me).
If Richelieu is a stand-in for Machiavelli, d'Artagnan is Everymonsieur: valiant, honorable and a bit thick.
This sounds entertaining, and often is. Allen, an award-winning playwright, is talented, smart and funny. The play has many laugh-out-loud moments, as when Jackie O. reflects on conditions in the year 1625, when The Three Musketeers is set: "Death is everywhere. It's like when Chanel went mass-market."
And the 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas the elder has such a strong narrative arc (with echoes of the King Arthur legend, Paradise Lost and even Star Wars) that it nearly obscures the fact that Allen lacks a narrative arc of his own.
Coffee With Richelieu doesn't just fiddle around with time and place, it fiddles around with Dumas' original story. In Allen's play, the temptress Milady becomes less wicked, and Cardinal Richelieu more so. Unfortunately, this weakens the story's internal logic and confuses the audience:
If Milady is not as evil as we first supposed, than her execution by the musketeers is morally ambiguous, as it is when d'Artagnan, disgusted and upset, joins forces with Richelieu. It is not a flight from good to evil, but from lesser evil to greater evil. As a result, the climax of Allen's play - d'Artagnan's eventual decision to renounce Richelieu and return to the musketeers - has little impact.
The audience is left with no feeling of culmination, no sense that a journey has been undertaken and completed. It's hard, really, to feel anything for d'Artagnan at all.
The play isn't helped by director Jim Petosa's decision to portray the three historic visitors broadly, perhaps to signify that these scenes are operating on a different temporal plane. We could have figured that out on our own, and without being subjected to director-induced over-acting.
The cast does as well as they can with the cliches they've been handed. Of the actors portraying comic figures, James Slaughter fares the best as the vain and portly musketeer Porthos and the foolish King Louis XIII. Slaughter gives us plenty of ham, but it's sandwiched between wry.
Paul Morella (Richelieu) demonstrates why evil can be fascinating, and Jerry Richardson makes an earnest, impulsive and appealing d'Artagnan. Susan Lynskey is the picture of common sense as Constance, d'Artagnan's love interest.
Harry Feiner's set consists of three gilded doorways that aptly suggest locales spanning three centuries. In contrast, the cones of light with which Tom Sturge bathes the actors at key moments suggests one of the few environments not specified in this play. Beam me up, Scotty.
Lonie Fullerton's costumes are playful, whether she's draping Milady in billowing clouds of white, or the Cardinal in a long red velvet gown reminiscent of another, more powerful religious figure. Morella even has a moustache that appears to have been drawn on, and the two ends are twisted up like horns.
In his program notes, Allen says that he chose to make Richelieu a coffee aficionado (historically, the cardinal had a fondness for chocolate) because that beverage has associations of "bitterness and sophistication." His concoction has intriguing ingredients, but needs more time to brew.
Coffee with Richelieu
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 2 p.m. 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 22.
Call: 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org