George Farquhar’s 1707 Restoration comedy “The Beaux’ Stratagem” was an instant classic that ridiculed rogues, women, the ministry and the French. Long deemed inaccessible to U.S. auds, the play is rarely revived here. That may change with this merry version co-adapted by two theater veterans, Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig, and given a first-class debut by D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater.
Huh? Wilder and Ludwig? (We’ll get to that.)
“Stratagem” not only titillated audiences with its farcical treatment of marriage and society, it helped lay the foundation for the British farce genre. It features a pair of society playboys who have squandered their inheritance and are scouring the countryside for two wealthy single women they might wed to sustain their debauched lifestyle. The scheme of these “rakes” is happily thwarted by their own innate sense of chivalry, but only after much pandemonium has ensued.
Shakespeare Theater has mounted the play with its usual budget-busting approach. A spectacular set features concentric turntables called a “double revolve,” which turn in opposite directions to reveal set designer James Kronzer’s amazing handiwork. Included is a sparse Tudor-style inn with stairs and balcony, an opulent country estate living room and two other sumptuous rooms. A busy cast of 19 makes athletic use of the stage, all clothed in handsome period garb by designer Robert Perdziola.
Artistic director Michael Kahn has staged the piece at an allegro pace that keeps the hijinx coming, and has assembled a first-rate cast that, for the most part, brings convincing life to Farquhar’s richly defined characters.
Christopher Innvar and Christian Conn star as the two inept deceivers unable to hide their noble lineage. The reliable Nancy Robinette makes the most of a colorful role as the wacky Mrs. Bountiful, an overly trusting mother and medical quack. Company regulars Floyd King and Colleen Delaney turn in delicious parodies of an effete Frenchman and an innkeeper’s saucy daughter.
Other standouts include Drew Eshelman as the opportunistic landlord, Rick Foucheux as the daytime minister-turned-nighttime highwayman and Ian Bedford as the perpetually drunken son. Julia Coffey personifies the ditzy society daughter, but Veanne Cox tends to overplay the deadpan delivery in the important role of cynical Mrs. Sullen (played previously by Maggie Smith and Brenda Blethyn).
Now, about the co-adaptation. The project started in 1939 when novelist-playwright Wilder decided to rework and substantially streamline the five-act, three-hour-plus play. But after completing the first half, Wilder abandoned the project. He died in 1975.
In 2004, his nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, invited D.C.-based playwright Ludwig to complete the adaptation. Working with Wilder’s handwritten manuscript, Ludwig refined the second half and made modest alterations to the first, including expanding the role of Mrs. Bountiful.
Clocking in at a comfy 2¼ hours and with its redundancies removed, “Stratagem” is surely now more suited for today. In tone, however, the two halves differ dramatically, a possible reflection of the individual writing styles as well as the farce’s building climax.
Yet one nagging problem is Ludwig’s curious notion about farce, that mayhem equals high humor or at least can overcome a lack of wit. As much of the opening night audience sat silently through the play’s frantic but unfunny close, it seemed obvious that a carefully crafted setup was being undermined.
Overall, the latest “Stratagem” is a laudable remake of a historically significant play, but it’s not likely to restore Farquhar to his 18th-century popularity.