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Women. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. They can be such devious creatures, but if they’re beautiful and captivating enough, men will grovel at their feet. In real life, and especially on the stage.
Both The Guardsman, the Kennedy Center’s whip-smart, sophisticated production of 20th century classic, and Clementine in the Lower 9, a new play at Forum Theatre, are about the power women can wield over the men who love them. In Clementine, that means a protagonist quite literally raising an axe over her husband’s head. Swords stay sheathed during The Guardsman, but the sexual tension is more palpable. The fate of the marriage hanging in the balance is all it takes to keep hearts racing, both onstage and way up in the cheap seats.
The Guardsman premiered in 1910 and was a something of a one-hit wonder for Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. Stateside, the play about a disguised actor who attempts to seduce his own wife became a campy romp for married thespians Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. But in this new translation by Richard Nelson, The Guardsman is far from farce. Sexy and slightly cynical, the show opens with a voyeuristic look at celebrity relationship, and closes with a panoramic view of marriage for the everyman.
The play stars Sarah Wayne Callies, best known as a femme fatale recently killed off The Walking Dead, as Marie, an actress who went around the block in Budapest a few times before settling down. Her number is either 11 or nine plus two more dalliances that are just “malicious gossip.” When the show opens, Marie and her actor husband are lounging around their velvet-paneled apartment, quarreling despite the presence of Mezei (Shuler Hensley), a theater critic who’s evidently her longtime platonic soul mate.
It’s a scene your mind will easily contemporize. Or try to. Could New York Times film critic A.O. Scott help reconcile Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson? Probably not, but in this play, the critic gets to play the tragic hero. Also easy to place in the present day is the bill collector (John Ahlin) who drops by seeking 460 crowns. He leaves with a theater ticket, and though one hardly imagines that free Wesley Snipes DVDs would placate the IRS, this fellow seems pleased as punch.
The leads are assured, but the bit parts are well played, too. Whether it’s a maid trembling as she pours tea, or an opera patron swooning over the final aria in Madame Butterfly, well-timed comic interruptions perfect the pacing of this dialogue-heavy show.
The crackling dialogue between Marie, her actor-husband (Finn Wittrock), and her actor-husband disguised as a dashing guardsman pushes this play into must-see territory. Line after line can be taken out of context and offered as cheeky one-liners. “I’m not saying don’t make love to me,” the actress says when the guardsman drops by her opera box. “I’m saying don’t be so obvious, and certainly slow down.”
Wittrock gets his share of situational zingers as well. “Don’t talk like that about countesses. My mother and sister are countesses,” the guardsman sputters at Marie, in a voice that sounds a bit like Sasha Baron Cohen doing a rural Hungarian accent. (The other characters employ American accents.) But it’s insecurity that has him attempting to seduce his own wife, whom he loves, desperately. As the actor relates his plans to Mezei, if he successfully woos Marie while dressed as the guardsman, he will end their marriage. And yet, by play’s end, things are hardly so clear-cut. “There’s as much of a world between ‘I love’ and ‘I am in love’ as there is between black and white,” the actress says. Likewise, there’s a lifetime of indeterminacy between lovers who part ways and lovers who live happily ever after. Few plays explore that spectrum as well as The Guardsman.