- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Too many cooks spoil the froth in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Beaux’ Stratagem,” George Farquhar’s 1707 romantic comedy as adapted by “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder — who began his reworking of the classic in 1938 — and Washington-area writer Ken Ludwig, who completed it in 2004.

The three voices prove a disharmonious mishmash, with schmaltzy shtick and below-the Borscht-belt yuks (“I’ve been married for 20 years — a moose with rickets is starting to look good to me now”) tossed into this already over-the-top play about gold-digging gentleman rakes on the prowl in the English countryside.

Schlock meets misogyny in this world-premiere adaptation, which defaces both women and the institution of marriage with the same barbed brush. Matrimony is a bed of nails where they throw rice, in the dark view of Farquhar, who was trapped in a loveless marriage with a former widow he mistakenly had thought was wealthy.

However, the play’s two mercenary heroes, Archer (Christopher Innvar) and Aimwell (Christian Conn), are bound and determined to find mates, if for no other reason than that they are down to their last 200 pounds. Handsome but somewhat vacant Aimwell sets his sights on the equally vacuous Dorinda (Julia Coffey), the in-love-with-love daughter of rich dowager Lady Bountiful (Nancy Robinette). Archer, the more rakish of the duo, falls for Mrs. Kate Sullen (Veanne Cox), the haughtily clever and miserably married wife of Sullen (Ian Bedford), Lady Bountiful’s drunken-lout son.

Women take such a drubbing in this “Stratagem” that even director Michael Kahn’s gossamer, confectionary staging cannot fully conceal the sulfurous bile oozing from the playwrights’ pens. You don’t know what is more alarming and insulting, gibes like “Women are always angry — that’s how they get things” or the audience laughter they provoke.

Granted, some of Mr. Ludwig’s updates add contemporary resonance. The delectably addled, do-gooder character of Lady Bountiful (Nancy Robinette), for example, has been expanded to include witty commentary on the dubiousness of favoring science over common sense. The majority of these updates, however, are grafted onto the original play with clumsy ostentation.

As usual with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the production values are sumptuous, with a revolving set by James Kronzer as captivating as a precious music box. Robert Perdziola’s gemlike costumes favor lustrous silks, satins and brocades, with lacy frills and petticoats that would bring an envious tinge to Marie Antoinette’s cheeks.

The performances rise above the source material, beginning with the heavenly Miss Cox as Mrs. Sullen, who looks as airy as a cream puff — until you discover the poisonous filling. Mr. Innvar is irresistibly dashing as her manipulative suitor, who cannot help but see all the angles.

As Lady Bountiful, Miss Robinette is a riot of merriment, her eyes dancing with lust as she brandishes a bone saw or head forceps, her body wriggling with delight as she contemplates another medical experiment.

Floyd King contributes a masterful comic turn late in the second act as a time-crunched French parson, as does Rick Foucheux as an unctuous man of the cloth with a side business as a highway robber.

With its stock characters and outlandishly broad comedy, “The Beaux’ Stratagem” is not the most subtle of farces under the best of circumstances. The addition of humor that is by turns hackneyed and mean-spirited toward women is not likely to win over a modern audience, unless that audience is predominantly made up of those who remember when vaudeville was king.

**

WHAT: “The Beaux’ Stratagem” by George Farquhar, adaptation by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 31.

TICKETS: $19 to $76.25

PHONE: 202/547-1122 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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