Kristine Nielsen and Jeremy Webb in She Stoops to Conquer.
And I was glad I did, even though this production wasn't quite top-drawer Martin. His distinctive signature - and he's one of the few directors we see locally who really has one - was still in evidence, though: that familiar mix of sophisticated, balanced ensemble, witty sympathy, and a sense of working within, and extending, a still-kicking tradition of literate theatre. By now Martin can also summon many of the best comic actors in the country, and so She Stoops was brimming with them: there were wonderfully funny turns here from Paxton Whitehead, Jon Patrick Walker, Jeremy Webb, Brooks Ashmanskas, and particularly Kristine Nielsen (at top, with Webb).
The trouble is that Martin has gotten very chummy - even indulgent - with the stars he now calls his "family." Thus he gets hilarious, but slightly superficial, work out of most of them, and he lets a few (Brooks Ashmanskas, this means you) get away with a level of schtick that can actually obscure character (Ashmanskas's familiar, fey zaniness is as lightning-quick as ever, but it's all wrong for the crude, if clever, Tony Lumpkin).
So on the one hand She Stoops to Conquer proved a splendid evening (complete with a grand set from David Korins); but on the other hand, you left feeling that you hadn't really seen She Stoops to Conquer; instead, you'd seen a clever gloss on it. Which is too bad, because Goldsmith's one stage classic (he died shortly after completing it) takes on a subject which vexes us much these days: class. And how it intersects with sex.
For Goldsmith's main gambit in She Stoops is to convert the usual comic contrivance of mistaken identity into a blunt meditation on status; his characters don't "recognize" each other in their comic encounters not because they're in drag or disguise but because they imagine they're of different social classes (this theme makes it all the way into Goldsmith's title, btw). Scene after scene deals with social climbing, the grasping after inheritance and legacy, and fashion as a denominator of status. But the sequences that modern audiences have the most trouble with are the ones in which we discover that the romantic hero, Marlow, though socially incapacitated around women of his own station, is something of a wolf among women with less power and prestige than himself.
These days, of course, we're quite uncomfortable with this basic truth of human (not just masculine) nature - even though many, if not most, of us behave much like Goldsmith's hero; we observe different moral and social standards with people above and below us in the food chain (and this tendency is probably increasing; hence, perhaps, our elaborate chagrin at its prevalence!). What's funniest about She Stoops to Conquer, however, is that not only are we offended the playwright should be so forthright about his characters, but also that he should be so forthright about us - for structuring his gags the way he does implies a straightforward understanding of how they'll be received by the audience. This play does, indeed, hold the mirror up to nature - only we're none too pleased by what we find there!
Worse still, Goldsmith is utterly forgiving of his characters' foibles - even when they edge beyond callous seduction toward actual larceny. (Another irony of the recent critical response to She Stoops is that most critics seem to miss that the play's most problematic villain is a woman - the grasping Mrs. Hardcastle.) The playwright does punish his wrongdoers - Marlow gets quite the comeuppance, in fact - but his fiancee blithely forgives him (as does Mrs. Hardcastle's husband) and does anyone really "learn" or change? Probably not; Goldsmith's too much of a realist for that. (It also may be worth mentioning that the Shakespearean comedy dealing most realistically with class - All's Well that Ends Well, currently on the Common - is also considered a "problem play.")
Mrs. Hardcastle to the rescue!