It isn't love that makes the world go 'round, but jealousy.
That's one conclusion to be drawn from the Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Way of the World. The characters drift around the stage in coats and dresses in various shades of emerald and hunter and lime. Costume designer Jane Greenwood wanted to reflect the characters' obsession with money; indeed, every man and woman on stage resembles a dollar bill with legs and a wig.
But the color palette also mirrors the characters' moods. British playwright William Congreve's aristocrats are green with envy. Everyone desires a romantic partner who is attached to someone else. Their frustrated appetites set into motion all manner of plots, schemes, poison-pen letters and double-crosses.
Under Michael Kahn, this production is polished to a high gleam. Actors are so eager to work with the Shakespeare Theatre that even small roles are filled by top-notch performers. The dialogue is witty and bright and hard. We laugh at the characters, but we don't feel for them. In truth, we're a little appalled, even by the purported hero. That's probably as it should be. Congreve's title for his play, The Way of the World, reveals a jaundiced point of view.
There's a reason that this play isn't performed more often, and it's because the plot is so convoluted that it makes War and Peace look like a nursery tale.
Suffice it to say that a reformed rake, Mirabell, is in love with Miramont, a young lady who will lose a considerable fortune if she weds without her aunt's consent. That consent is not forthcoming, as Mirabell toyed with the aunt's affections to gain access to her niece. Complicating matters are three buffoonish rivals for Miramont's hand, two women who are (or have been) in love with Mirabell, a false friend and servants with their own agendas.
Even after having seen the show and having read a four-page plot synopsis twice, I'm still confused. And that's a pity, because Congreve's play is often a very funny meditation on love and marriage. In particular, a scene between Mirabell and Miramont in which they set forth the conditions under which they will consent to wed is a comic masterpiece, one of the high points of English literature.
The acting uniformly is first-rate, with honors going to Floyd King (as one of the foppish suitors) and Nancy Robinette (as Miramont's aunt). Think of King's character, Anthony Witwoud, as being a member of the 17th-century version of an entourage; he is a vain, insecure hanger-on, desperate to maintain his inner-circle status. Likewise, Robinette, as the aging coquette Lady Wishfort, is all bustle and girlish flutter as she rehearses for a visit from a suitor: Should she recline on a chaise longue in pretty disarray? Or spark her visitor's lust by "accidentally" showing some leg?
Veanne Cox and Christopher Innvar play the young lovers. While Cox is sparkling as a shower of raindrops, and Innvar is virile and appealing, they simply are too old to play an ingenue and her boy toy. Age-appropriate casting is an issue with this production; everyone seems to belong to the same generation. That presents an unnecessary, extra snarl for an audience that's already working hard to untangle the plot. Anthony Witwoud seems as though he ought to be wooing Lady Wishfort, not her niece. And he seems older than his supposed "elder" brother, Sir Wilfull Witwoud (a robust Doug Rees).
Kahn and his designers have put a chilly, cynical world on stage, one symbolized by all those green frocks. They undeniably are striking, but after a while, the audience longs for a jolt of red, real or symbolic. When, late in the play, two characters engage in genuine self-sacrifice, it's an immense relief. Like a fire on an autumn night, it warms our blood.
IF YOU GO
The Way of the World runs through Nov. 16 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $23.50-$79.75. Information: 202-547-1122 or shakespearetheatre.org.