Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pulling out all the comic stops on She Stoops

Kristine Nielsen and Jeremy Webb in She Stoops to Conquer.
I haven't caught much theatre in Boston of late, I'm sorry to say - I'm afraid other destinations have just proven too tempting. How could I pass up Nicky Martin's version of She Stoops to Conquer, for instance? Oliver Goldsmith's masterpiece is rarely done, and I don't think there's anything by Martin on the horizon at the Huntington this season (more's the pity). So I had to get up to Williamstown last weekend to catch its last performances.

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!
Martin's (welcome) attitude toward all this is a blithe and worldly one; still, he mostly glides over these issues without truly investigating them. Thus Goldsmith's deeper themes - about the compatibility of natural, if amoral, desire with social hierarchy - largely go missing. And as no one in this production is allowed real claws (or teeth), not much is ever really at stake. Yet oddly, given the generally breezy atmosphere, Martin doesn't give Marlow the usual excuse for his seductive moves (which is that he's an immature pup); thus Jon Patrick Walker's performance may be a brilliant piece of physical comedy - and I mean brilliant - but he's not quite as sympathetic as he might be. Still, Walker and co-star Jeremy Webb both made a case for themselves as classical actors as skilled as anyone I saw at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile Paxton Whitehead was, if anything, even better; with his double-bass voice and exquisitely perplexed timing, his turn as the good-hearted Mr. Hardcastle was, simply put, a joy. Still, his scenes were generally stolen - if charmingly - by Kristine Nielsen, whose ditzy Mrs. Hardcastle was well over the top (to match her wild frock, I suppose), and yet somehow always convincingly so; Nielsen fully inhabited even her wildest pratfalls. Alas, you couldn't say the same for Brooks Ashmanskas, though his preening hijinks were as funny as they always are - still, he missed both Tony Lumpkin's brutish smarts and his smothered, unhappy resentment of his mother (both of which are important to Goldsmith's thematic scheme). And alas, the other women in the cast may have been satisfactory, but weren't nearly in the same league as the men - in particular Mia Barron, the "she" who stoops to conquer, wasn't nearly mischievous enough to power her scenes; she essentially let the whole play be stolen away from her.  But then perhaps Nicky Martin simply forgot to tell her that she needed to kick things up a notch rather than stoop if she wanted to conquer this talented crew.

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