So it turns out that Gilbert & Sullivan weren’t joined at the hip, after all. Back in 1877, in an independent outing sans his musical collaborator Arthur Sullivan, Victorian scribbler William S. Gilbert turned a jaundiced eye to the marriage customs of the English upper classes and, writing in the highest of comedic dudgeon, flayed his countrymen alive for the mercenary manner of their courting rituals. In a tres bon revival of this sparkling period piece, savvy helmer Doug Hughes polishes Gilbert’s showy theatrical style to a high gloss while savoring every venomous drop of his poisonous wit.
Kudos all around for this inspired literary rescue job. Theater for a New Audience artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz originally tapped Gerald Gutierrez to direct; after his untimely death last December, Hughes took over, making it his fourth gig of the season, after “Frozen,” “The Beard of Avon” and “Flesh and Blood.”
The crack design team already assembled by Gutierrez really went through the roof (and from the sumptuous look of things, the budget) on this beauty. John Lee Beatty’s period settings are better than pretty; they are also quite nasty in a way Gilbert would have approved of. To be sure, the scenes are anchored by solid set pieces: a farmyard fence for the bucolic setting on the England-Scotland border where the would-be lovers are first encountered, and gracefully contoured furniture for the elegant English townhouse where the hard-headed marriage contracts are hammered out. But the dominant design feature is the wall treatment, rendered in intricate patterns of trompe l’oeil, cross-hatching and painterly doodles that are pretty as a picture, but all facade — as phony as the pieties uttered by the high-born hypocrites who prattle about their tender feelings but are really in it for the cash.
Catherine Zuber’s tightly cinched costumes and indestructible wigs (well displayed under Rui Rita’s bright-is-better lighting) are amusing in a very different way. With its rich textures, heavy drape and rigid silhouette, Zuber’s handsome body armor is a clear indicator of exactly how far you should trust any character who appears comfortable wearing it.
The comic giveaway is that everyone in this incisive comedy of manners is comfortable, including the three crafty peasants in heavily starched folk costume who pick the pockets of urban travelers stranded in their picturesque neck of the Scottish countryside. Maggie Lacey (“a puir brown hillside lassie”), Sloane Shelton (her “puir auld mither”) and David Don Miller (“yon brave and honest lad,” who derails passing trains to attract paying customers to the local inn) play these foxes with a totally untrustworthy air of innocence. Dialect coach Elizabeth Smith deserves multiple medals for guiding them through the burred thickets of their hilarious Scottish dialect.
If Gilbert is unkind to the peasant class, he is altogether without mercy when it comes to their de-railed social betters, whose amorous instincts bust loose in the bucolic setting. Declarations of love are made by one and all, but none is as reckless as Cheviot Hill, a rich twit who manages to become engaged to three women at once. Although Jeremy Shamos brings an endearingly addled air to the role, Gilbert views Cheviot’s mindless romantic dalliances not as light romantic entertainment but as a deadly serious social game played for high financial stakes. If Cheviot marries anyone but his cousin Minnie (a cunning little minx in Nicole Lowrance’s kittenish perf), his greedy uncle Symperson (John Horton) will be out a considerable fortune. But if he marries anyone at all, his guardian (John Christopher Jones) will lose his entire livelihood.
Lest any modern audience get the wrong idea, the women in question are every bit as rapacious as the men. A supposedly guileless country lass sells out her fiance for a few gold coins. A fine “young lady of property” (in a beguiling perf from Caitlin Muelder) thinks nothing of asking Cheviot to remain celibate for the rest of his life, so that her lover (who happens to be Cheviot’s guardian) will not be deprived of his unearned income. And while darling Minnie declares herself “quite, quite artless,” the little minx makes sure that “those base and servile things” known as marriage settlements are written in stone before she gives her hand.
The thesps are individually beguiling and the ensemble work is seamless, but make no mistake about it: The dialogue that drips from their lips on matters of love and marriage and the property value thereof is a pure gift from a brilliant dramatist and a thoroughly dyspeptic man.