- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

Starbucks and swashbuckling collide in Norman Allen's fun, witty and rather pointless “Coffee With Richelieu,” a variation on “The Three Mus-

keteers” where the cardinal gets the spotlight.

As played with lizardlike glee by Paul Morella, the cardinal is a restless intellect constantly in search of the ultimate Maxwell House moment. Even if their moral compass does point his way, Richelieu clearly relishes his coffee talk with Queen Victoria, Gandhi and Jackie O, played by various members of the spritely cast.

In between smacking his lips over a delicacy unheard of in his time cafe mocha Richelieu tries to get a brave and passionate young man to come to the dark side. It may sound like Luke Skywalker, but actually the young man in question is D'Artagnan (Jerry Richardson), the fiery novice to none other than “The Three Musketeers.”

Seems like everybody wants a piece of D'Artagnan, the Musketeers included. Porthos (James Slaughter) begs the lad to join him in drinking and roistering, while Aramis (Bill Gillett) wants him to writhe in exquisite Christian piety and guilt. As for the brooding Athos (Christopher Lane) he would like nothing better than that the young man give up all this idealism and just be depressed like everyone else.

The women get in their digs, as well. Constance (Susan Lynskey), the lovely maid to Queen Anne (Shannon Parks), asks eternal love and fidelity from D'Artagnan. On the flip side, the scheming seductress Milady (Valerie Leonard), simply wants his bod. So does Queen Anne, in a way her roving eye for the handsome Englishman Buckingham (also played by Mr. Lane) has gotten her in a spot of trouble and she needs D'Artagnan to save her good name.

What's a fledgling Musketeer to do? As D'Artagnan comes of age in a way that recalls the musical “Pippin,” Richelieu enjoys a steady stream of caffeinated beverages and goes on an extended jag about the importance of having a nemesis (What would Jesus be without Judas? he asks), the absurdities of the modern age, and anything else that comes into his overboiled mind.

The fact that the Musketeers are brandishing swords and mucking about and that the queen's diamond necklace is changing hands faster than a card in a game of three-card monte seems irrelevant. Mr. Allen's play is a roiling stew of ideas, declarations, advice to the lovelorn, and intellectual discourses.

Still, there is great fun to be had as long as you quit worrying that the show doesn't make a blessed bit of sense, particularly in the second act, where the characters find themselves in some sort of Parlor Beyond the Shadowy Vale, where they speak of forgiveness, second chances, and the women get to wear frothy peignoirs that would make Loretta Young pea-green with envy.

It all gets a bit thick in the afterlife, rather like a soap opera, where last-minute revelations come fast and furious. For example, you mean to tell me that Milady faked her daughter's death in infancy only to kill her with a poisoned Tic Tac 20 years later? Even Erica Kane wouldn't be up for that.

The cast, under Jim Petosa's expert direction, seems to be having a grand old time prancing around in Lonnie Fullerton's costumes, which look to have come directly from the MGM back lot, and the almost campy opulence of Harry Feiner's set.

They tread nimbly between absurdity and ambiguity, Mr. Morella's delicately vile portrayal of Richelieu leading the way. He is well matched by Miss Leonard as the supremely sexy and amoral Milady. Mr. Richardson is fetchingly boyish as D'Artagnan, and Mr. Slaughter ably portrays two aspects of decadence in his roles as Porthos and King Louis XIII.

In the mingling of highbrow ideas and lowbrow comedy, “Coffee With Richelieu” puts you in mind of the works of Tom Stoppard. There's a lot of yucking it up, as well as jokes, double entendres and stand-up comedy patter, but where Mr. Stoppard's works are a cappuccino (the perfect blend of froth and richness), this play is more Tom Stoppard Lite a skimmed decaf latte, if you will.


** 1/2

WHAT: “Coffee With Richelieu” by Norman Allen

WHEN: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Sept. 22

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

TICKETS: $15-$35

TELEPHONE: (301) 924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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