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Lady Lucy, a goody two-shoes among the harpies at her cousin Lady Reveller’s nightly card game, abjures gambling in favor of the theater: “One ruins my estate and character,” she chirps. “The other diverts my temper and improves my mind.”
But does it really? It isn’t obvious how extensive a facelift contemporary playwright David Grimm has given Susanna Centlivre’s 300-year-old courtship-and-cards comedy The Basset Table, beyond stripping the title of its reference to a now-obscure game wherein the high stakes were inbuilt. (Apparently something about the game itself facilitated massive gains or losses more readily than other card sports.) There’s a (presumably) new, D.C.-centric prologue, an epilogue, and one of the more visceral dick jokes in recent memory, but its Restoration-era setting is preserved in the heightened language and wigged-and-corseted wardobe that makes one feel, respectively, slightly jealous of the actors and very, very sorry for them.
The dick joke, since you asked, comes from the mouth of the most disarming of Centlivre’s independently minded women, Valeria (the winsome Emily Trask), who harbors a passion for biology unbecoming a woman of the time—that’s biology in the academic, frog-dissecting sense. (She has a magnifying glass affixed to her spectacles.) Her father wants to chuck her test tubes and marry her off to a blustering sea captain who’ll make proud English seamen with her, while she prefers the gentle Ensign Lovely (Robbie Gay). Three other couples-in-waiting (well, one of them is already married, but that’s a story, too) orbit the Lady Reveller’s casino. I’ll spare you the tedium of reeling off all those didactic names. (They’re called Worthy, Courtly, and so on.) With the exception of Michael Milligan’s conniving Sir Courtly—a ladykiller with more powder and paint on his face than his prey have—the women are smarter and/or more self-possessed than the men, not that it’s going to save them from having to marry them. And not that these guys are absent any admirable qualities: As Lord Worthy, Marcus Kyd dispenses with his usual silver-tongued charm, making his clumsy, self-flagellating appeals for Lady Reveller almost painful to observe. I wish every performance here had as much weight behind the pretty words.
Still, Director Eleanor Holdridge keeps the large cast playing in the same jaunty key, and they all have a grasp of the orotund performance style this material requires. Emily Townley’s wry turn as Lady Reveller’s irreverent housemaid is a refreshing change from more dire parts she’s typically cast in at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. As the other servant in the household, Ashley Ivery is doing what he does in every show at Constellation Theatre, where this kind of flamboyance is basically the house style, but it works. As the poor, gullible husband of Tonya Beckman Ross’ dissolute Mrs. Sago, whose gambling addiction has him deeply in debt, Darius Pierce earns a big laugh with his one-word comment on how Marion Williams’ diagonal, multilevel set evokes one of M.C. Escher’s infinite staircases. While some will choose to see this as a celebration of female empowerment, it isn’t so much a mind-improving exercise as an agreeable, well-spoken time-passer. Like those Escher stairs, it looks great on its way to nowhere in particular.