A specialist in applying new spit and polish to Moliere classics, Freyda Thomas turns to his comparatively obscure junior contemporary Jean-Francois Regnard in “The Gamester,” based on the latter’s 1696 “Le Joueur.” Less an adaptation than a new commedia inspired by the original work’s basic outline, this sparkling farce about a compulsive gambler has no trouble bridging a 310-year gap in audience tastes. And Ron Lagomarsino’s American Conservatory Theater staging reps one of that entity’s more purely enjoyable productions in some time.
Titular figure is Valere (Lorenzo Pisoni), a handsome but callow young aristocrat who has squandered a small fortune and alienated his proper father, Thomas (Steve Irish), by wallowing in Parisian vices. Well, actually, just one vice: He’s a hapless slave to Lady Luck.
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Said muse seldom rewards his attentions, however, to the dismay of long-suffering servant Hector (Gregory Wallace) as well as disapproving true love Angelique (Margot White). She threatens to marry another if Valere doesn’t reform, while dad threatens disinheritance. Creditors threaten Valere with jail if his ample debts aren’t repaid. Natch, he can’t help thinking one more gaming bout might turn all this around, so long as father, fiancee and all others are kept unaware of his relapse.
Several richly caricatured characters have reasons to hope the young rake fails: Angelique’s black-widow older sister, Mme. Argante (Rene Augesen), wants him for herself. The ingenue’s guardian, Mme. Preferee (Stacy Ross), still stings from our roue’s past rejection. Unflappably rich ‘n’ randy matron Mme. Securite (Joan Mankin) does not want to lose the boytoy she’s enjoyed whenever his circumstances grew desperate enough to make gigolo employment necessary.
Two male buffoons also plot against him — the decrepit Dorante (Ron Campbell), who covets Angelique, and florid Marquis de Fauxpas (Anthony Fusco), reduced to a stammering ruin whenever he tries to approach his frosty love object, Mme. Argante.
These subsidiary roles are deliciously played, heightening the payoff as casino-set act two finds them pairing off in unexpected romantic liaisons. This happens as all spy on the disguised Valere’s attempt to win back his fortune at the tables — an effort doomed not just by bad luck, but by the presence of grim onlooker Angelique herself, in cross-dress guise.
A happy ending is somehow devised (by Thomas — like many elements here, it bears scant resemblance to Regnard’s original), though it doesn’t let our irresponsible hero off the hook one whit. Thomas has a gift for rhyme and meter, adhering to antique forms via language just contempo enough to seem wittily impudent rather than cheap-laugh crass.
Lagomarsino’s ensemble — more rooted in Bay Area talent than is usual for ACT, making you wonder again why they so often go farther afield — is almost uniformly delightful, even if opening night wasn’t necessarily perfect: There were timing bald patches, while physical comedy and sound design elements (including several archly retro lounge-type tracks) weren’t as yet ideally incorporated into the whole. This is a production sure to go from very good to better as its run continues.
Kate Edmunds’ scenery at times wavers awkwardly between witty and tacky, a line more ably straddled by Beaver Bauer’s over-the-top costumes, which evoke a 17th-century fashionista France that Liberace might well have approved of.