“When Ladies Battle” is the latest proof of the Pearl Theater Company’s growing reputation as the premier Off Broadway classical rep group. The title refers to the ingenious wit, compassion and fearless gusto that the play’s central character, a clever French countess, brings to her romantic and political war games, but those characteristics could just as well be used to describe the production itself.
Written in 1851 by Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouve, “When Ladies Battle” is a giddy example of the tightly structured “well-made play” form that Scribe epitomized. With Michael Feingold’s sharp new translation that emphasizes the wit in this battle of wits, and a cast that doesn’t miss a trick, the Pearl’s production is a little gem.
“Ladies” follows the near-farcical twists and turns wrought by any number of theatrical cliches — hidden identities and unexpressed love only being the two most obvious. But guided by John Rando’s incisive, split-second direction, and a note-perfect central performance by Joanne Camp, the production finds unexpected poignance in this very funny comedy about a not-terribly-young woman who stakes everything on love.
Camp plays the Countess of Autreval, a smart thirtysomething woman who has given refuge to political refugee Henri de Flavignol (Bradford Cover), a rather silly but handsome 25-year-old man who’s made the mistake of publicly supporting Napoleon just as the Emperor has gone into exile. With a death warrant on his head, the upper-class Henri, guided by the Countess, goes into hiding as a servant in the Countess’ household.
The Countess, of course, has fallen in love with Henri, and the pompous young man returns her affections — to a degree. More grateful to the Countess than smitten with her, Henri instead soon falls for the Countess’ beloved 16-year-old niece Leonie (Patricia Jones). The Countess’ battle, then, is on two fronts: against the opportunistic baron (Mark La Mura) who hunts Henri, and against a young woman that she loves as a daughter.
For good measure and much comic grist, “Ladies” tosses in Gustave (a splendidly over-the-top Arnie Burton), the buffoonish, cowardly clerk who pines for the Countess and will do anything — even if it involves uncharacteristic bravery — to win her affections. Suffice it to say that Gustave will play a central role in the Countess’ complicated plot to save Henri from the dragoons.
While the political intrigue provides the play with the requisite twists that keeps “Ladies” battling, it’s the Countess’ romantic struggles — for her love and against time itself — that lend the play a human touch not always found in the mousetrap machinations of the genre. That quality is made clear in Feingold’s translation — accessible and modern without stumbling into obvious anachronism.
But Feingold and Rando both know that the play’s undercurrent of poignance should stay just that — an undercurrent. “Ladies” is a comedy, first and last, and the Pearl’s production nails just about every laugh in its reach. Burton, whose cringing clerk falls somewhere between Bert Lahr and Paul Lynde, is given free range for some scenery-chewing,and the tactic works. La Mura’s Baron could stand a bit more malice, but that’s a quibble. “When Ladies Battle” is a charmer.