- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

"I love everything that's old," says the country squire. "Old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine." The Folger Theatre would like us to appreciate an old play in the same manner but falls short of the mark.
Oliver Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," considered one of the masterpieces of 18th-century theater, is a breezy commentary on English life circa 1773. Comedies of manners are notoriously hard to pull off, especially when the manners they are satirizing are more than two centuries distant.
"She Stoops" remains a staple of the modern theater because Goldsmith satirizes the enduring human follies chiefly pettiness, vanity and sloth. He also makes a nod toward the more noble aspects of the human spirit, including charity and marital love.
Goldsmith wanted to revive the elements of Restoration comedy in his own day because he thought the English stage had become too preachy and maudlin. So the plot contains class commentary, as well as the usual mix-ups and mistaken identities. (Until 1903, the British government mandated at least one mix-up and mistaken identity in every comedy at least it seems that way.) The playwright's tone isn't nearly as caustic as Restoration comedies, though.
As the play begins, Mr. Hardcastle (Ralph Cosham) is preparing to receive Marlow (David Fendig), a suitor for the hand of his daughter, Kate (Kate Eastwood Norris). His second wife, Mrs. Hardcastle (Catherine Flye), is scheming to get her son educated, married off or at least to spend one night at home rather than drinking with his friends.
Mrs. Hardcastle's niece, Constance (Kosha Engler), has secretly fallen in love with Hastings (Scot McKenzie), who is Marlow's best friend and traveling companion. On the way to the Hardcastle estate, Marlow and Hastings accidentally run into Mrs. Hardcastle's son, Tony Lumpkin (Bruce Nelson). Without revealing who he is, Lumpkin tells them that they are too far away to complete their journey but that there is a pleasant inn where they might stay the night.
The inn is really the Hardcastle home, and Marlow and Hastings treat the bewildered Mr. Hardcastle as an innkeeper. Marlow meets Kate, thinking she has coincidentally arrived at the inn, but cannot look her in the eye. Kate changes into plainer clothes and affects a lower-class accent the next time they meet, and Marlow thinks she is a barmaid. His shyness gone, he is able to speak to her with wit and loquacity.
For reasons of space, you'll have to see or read the play if you want to find out all the other plot contrivances. Among others: a chest of jewels, a scary nighttime journey through the woods, and cousins almost marrying each other.
Although director Richard Clifford's pacing is steady, several spirited but ultimately disappointing performances weaken the production. Miss Norris, a natural comedic actress last seen on the Folger stage in "As You Like It," has several amusing moments, but not nearly enough.
As Constance's secret suitor and Marlow's friend, Mr. McKenzie has a remarkably intense stage presence, transfixing one with his taut face and dexterous movements. That was superb when he was in "A Clockwork Orange" and "Macbeth," but too much in a light comedy.
Worse, the romances lack the savor and sentiment of real love. The actors don't manage to capture budding love in all its tender glory. Without those erotic sparks, the play falls flat. Only Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle are convincingly in love.
As Tony Lumpkin, Mr. Nelson doesn't rise above the lowliness of his character. His mannerisms are stereotypically foppish, right down to that silly laugh. Goldsmith was a bum who lived off inheritances and died deeply in debt, so he may have based Lumpkin's character on himself. That would explain the large amount of stage time that Lumpkin gets, which is enough to make him thoroughly disagreeable. Perhaps there was no way to make his character sympathetic.
The strengths of the production include Mr. Cosham, whose Mr. Hardcastle is droll and wonderfully funny. Eric Bloom is hysterical as the slack-jawed yokel whom Mr. Hardcastle presses into service as a manservant.
The costume and set designs are strikingly complementary, with scrumptious hues of burgundy, cream and light brown. Unusual for a period piece, the men's costumes are better looking and more interesting than the women's. The set is more elaborate than most Folger productions, and while the decorations of the country house are not ornate, they contribute handily to the atmosphere.

WHAT: "She Stoops to Conquer"
WHERE: Folger Theatre at Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. some Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
TICKETS: $25 to $41PHONE: 202/544-7077 or www.folger.edu

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