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Theatre in Review: She Stoops to Conquer (The Actors Company Theatre at Theatre Row)

Everyone involved with TACT's revival of She Stoops to Conquer wants you to have a good time; this may be the most solicitous cast in in town. Before the play begins, the actors drift into the house, welcoming us and thanking us for attending; they only stop short of offering us cocktails and snacks. When curtain time arrives, they assemble onstage, playing toy (and a couple of real) musical instruments and joining in song. They are nothing if not hell-bent on getting us into the mood to enjoy Oliver Goldsmith's classic comedy.

And yet, despite the enormous expenditure of goodwill and the determined display of high spirits, the desired party atmosphere never quite takes hold. The reasons for this are faintly mysterious, given the cast's solid grasp of classical style. Jeremy Beck and Tony Roach are stalwart, well-spoken, and eminently suitable as a pair of young sparks who have come to the country to woo fair maids, only to end up entangled in various deceptions. Cynthia Darlow is on hand as an outraged pillar of middle-class respectability. Mairin Lee has a delightful take-charge manner as the young lady who sorts out all the complications.

And yet, an evening that ought to be uproarious is little more than mildly amusing. The problem, I think, is that Scott Alan Evans, who directed (and also adapted, streamlining the action and eliminating some minor characters), has pressed his cast to maintain such a cheerful, friendly tone that the play's wellsprings of laughter -- rudeness, embarrassment, and flop-sweat desperation -- are severely discounted. These nice people don't really mean it, do they?

Beck is Charles Marlow, a young gentleman of quality from London who arrives at the country home of the Hardcastle family for a look-see with Kate, the merry, strong-minded daughter of the house. The meeting has been arranged by their fathers, and, if all goes well, a match may be in the offing. However, Charles has been deceived into thinking the Hardcastle manse is an inn, and confuses Mr. Hardcastle with the proprietor; he throws himself into a chair, demands his supper, and coolly fends off each of Mr. Hardcastle's conversational icebreakers, wondering aloud at the older man's nerve for treating him like an equal. It should be a surefire comic situation, but it doesn't pay off, partly because John Rothman's Mr. Hardcastle is too gentle a soul; he needs an extra touch of pompousness, so we can enjoy seeing him taken down several pegs by this arrogant intruder. As a result, when Charles at last learns of his error, his mortification doesn't yield the expected hilarity.

As it happens, Charles has even bigger problems. He freezes up in front of respectable young women, becoming a shaking, stuttering dullard, barely able to complete a sentence. Bring on a barmaid, however, and he loosens up, his conversation flowing like the Thames. His initial interview with Kate, whom he can barely look at, is a disaster; later, confusing her for a tavern keeper's daughter, he comes in hot pursuit. Beck does a solid job of communicating Charles' acute social anxiety, but when he slips into his rogue-with-women mode, the laughs aren't really there; Lee could do more to give her "barmaid" role a sharper, funnier profile.

Roach is George Hastings, who has designs on Constance Neville, a young relative of the Hardcastles. However, Mrs. Hardcastle wants Constance for Tony Lumpkin, her son from a previous marriage. No one in her right mind would dream of marrying the appropriately named Lumpkin, a doughy drunkard who, when not hoisting a pint, enjoys stirring up trouble. (It is he who misleads Charles about the true nature of the Hardcastle home.) George's plan to extract Constance -- and her inheritance of jewels -- from Mrs. Hardcastle's clutches leads to all sorts of trouble: Among other things, the jewels pass through various hands, and Mrs. Hardcastle's attempt at spiriting away Constance via coach ends with the elder lady dumped in a pond. There's a considerable amount of running around and panic attacks, but these shenanigans never receive the farcical stylization that would allow them to explode in hilarity. Darlow doesn't make as much as she might of Mrs. Hardcastle's social pretensions and censorious manner, although she has her moments, both when coquettishly trying to pass herself off as a sweet young thing of 40 and finally unleashing her ire at the nest of schemers in her home. Also, Tony, who, with his many plots, should be a driving comic force -- Nathan Lane had an early success in the role -- seems oddly on the sidelines in Richard Thieriot's understated performance.

This inability to find the right style extends to the design. Brett Banakis' skeletal surround, dotted with deer heads, doesn't give us a sense of how the Hardcastles live, arguably an error since much of the action turns on the notion that they reside in a house that can be taken for a roadside inn. Tracy Christensen's costume design tries to blend modern and period ideas -- the men wear jeans and Dockers with embroidered coats and ruffled cuffs and cravats, and the young women have short skirts with period peplums. Overall, the men's costumes work better. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting and Patrick Kiernan's sound are both okay.

Evans' production is rarely, if ever, dull, but throughout it lacks a strong point of view and an eye for detail, both of which are needed if we are to see why She Stoops to Conquer was such a success in its day, with one blow eliminating the popular sentimental comedy genre of the 18th century, replacing it with a more robust style of humor. This one doesn't conquer; it merely tries to ingratiate. -- David Barbour

(21 October 2016)

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