And you thought it was hard getting a new play performed today? Consider the difficulties confronting Oliver Goldsmith (Owen Sharpe), "Goldy" to his chums, who wants nothing more in the London of the 1770s beyond the premiere of his latest play, "She Stoops to Conquer."

And you thought it was hard getting a new play performed today? Consider the difficulties confronting Oliver Goldsmith (Owen Sharpe), “Goldy” to his chums, who wants nothing more in the London of the 1770s beyond the premiere of his latest play, “She Stoops to Conquer.” So desperate is the Irishman that he has taken to eating candles, frustrated by the fact that his play has been in the possession of Covent Garden impresario George Colman for some 22 months.

Colman’s Drury Lane rival actor-manager David Garrick (the indefatigable Jason Watkins) isn’t much more helpful, at least in contemporary playwright April de Angelis’ reimagining of events in her boisterous if messy new play, “A Laughing Matter.” Garrick has passed on “She Stoops” altogether, persuaded by his wife that Goldsmith’s play is “low.” (Sexual blackmail plays its part in Garrick’s decision, too.) Could it be that “She Stoops” isn’t any good? Not terribly likely, stammers its author: “I have examined all possibilities, and that is the least probable.”

De Angelis has a high old time examining the historical possibilities in a play that has reached the National alongside a repertory staging (a surprisingly dull one) of “She Stoops.” Both shows are co-productions with the Out of Joint touring company, whose a.d., Max Stafford-Clark, has done directorial duties on each.

And in a play jointly concerned to some extent with the workings of both history and the theater, “A Laughing Matter” repeats a recent theatrical feat. In 1988, Stafford-Clark opened a new play, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good,” at his then-home at the Royal Court, where the modern play ran in conjunction with a period comedy, Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer.” And guess what? Wertenbaker’s play eclipsed its 1706 forbear and has since asserted itself as a modern classic. These many years later, so it is again: While no one would confer the status of a classic upon de Angelis’ script, as performed by the same company as “She Stoops,” it is certainly more fun.

The contemporary play’s brio often comes at the expense of coherence, focus and even taste, as if a play very much preoccupied by the debate over pandering to a public were perfectly happy to do exactly that. One is acutely aware of this fact for much of the first act, as Goldsmith quickly fades into the background, ceding the spotlight to that showman Garrick, spearheader of his own theatrical renaissance. An advocate of “emotion, not cynicism,” Garrick inhabits a world where both sometimes must surrender to expediency. After all, as actor Ian Redford puts it, swiftly moving among three roles, “We that live to please must please to live.” (This from the very era that saw Garrick’s famously rewritten “King Lear,” the mad monarch given an upbeat fate.)

That adage has evidently informed — and why not? — Stafford-Clark’s staging of the show, which plays out on a richly appointed Julian McGowan set (Hogarth’s portrait of Garrick as Richard III takes pride of place) that makes room either side for boxes of actual theatergoers, whose expressions of delight spread through the house. (Conversely, it doesn’t help the cause of the same troupe’s production of “She Stoops” to see the onstage audience as obviously dulled by proceedings as are those of us out there in the dark.)

I could have done without “Laughing Matter’s” curtain call romp, an apparent holdover of Stafford-Clark’s guest forays into Restoration-era jollity for the RSC. And the less charismatic members of the “She Stoops” company display equally low wattage here, starting with Stephen Beresford in a trio of parts crying out for Peter Gallagher and a charmless array of turns from Christopher Staines.

“A Laughing Matter” isn’t as accomplished as an earlier de Angelis play on the same theme, “Playhouse Creatures” (premiered by the now-defunct Peter Hall Co. at the Old Vic), which took a spry and witty look at the early days of that then-nascent profession, the actress, during the Restoration. But at its sometimes “Noises Off”-like best, the play pulses along to the singular rhythm of a milieu where “Antony and Cleopatra” jokes come as naturally as a budding performer practicing her screams from “King John.” At such giddy moments, is there anywhere a theater lover would rather be?

A Laughing Matter

Royal National Theater/Lyttelton, London; 906 Seats; £33 ($54) Top


A Royal National Theater presentation of the Royal National Theater/Out of Joint production of a play in two acts by April de Angelis. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark.


Sets and costumes, Julian McGowan; lighting, Johanna Town; music, Paddy Cunneen; sound, Neil Alexander; choreographer, Wendy Allnutt. Opened Dec. 17, 2002. Reviewed Jan. 11, 2003. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.


David Garrick - Jason Watkins Oliver Goldsmith/Theophilus O'Ryan - Owen Sharpe Mrs. Garrick/Mrs. Barry - Fritha Goodey Peg Woffington/Hannah More - Monica Dolan Charles Macklin/Sir Joshua Reynolds - Nigel Cooke Edmund Burke/Sam Cautherley/Mr. Cross - Stephen Beresford Cedric Bounce/Mr. Larpent - Matthew Sim James Boswell/Mr. Barry/Duke of Kingston - Christopher Staines Lady Kingston/Mrs. Butler - Jane Wood Mrs. Cibber - Bella Merlin Dr. Johnson/Rev. Cumberland/Betty Flint - Ian Redford
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