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Every sentence in this play is 14 words too long,” marveled a colleague, loitering in the Lansburgh Theatre lobby, and I suppose he was right: The fops and the fools, the schemers and the servants, the coquettes and the WASPs and the women on the verge in The Way of the Worlddo rather like the sound of their own voices.
But then that colleague has been known to publish an ornate paragraph or six, in these very pages, and if you’ve ever made it unscathed through one of his reviews, well, congratulate yourself: You’ve got the wit and the grammatical wherewithal to keep up with Congreve.
Certainly you’ll have a laugh or two trying—and these days, with economies teetering and the combatants in the presidential campaign still flailing away mercilessly, who doesn’t need a laugh or two? A blithe bit of nonsense involving courtship and chicanery among the 18th-century London beau monde, The Way of the World sets up many an archly appetizing comic situation to distract audiences from the unappetizing, unfunny direness of their own.
To wit: A man-about-town pines for his beloved, whose spinster aunt loathes the Lothario for an earlier romantic ruse gone wrong; because the aunt holds the purse strings, her consent is more or less essential before love can proceed to marriage, so a deception more elaborate than the first gets set in motion.
There’s a bit of flirting, a jot of cheating, a certain quantity of drinking, and an outrageous lot of flattery; disguised servants, wine-soaked country cousins, illiterate fashionistas, jealous scolds, put-upon wives, and vengeful husbands all figure in the intricate plotting as the scheme first unfolds, then unravels.
And just when you think there’s no out and the villain who has his eye on everybody’s money will surely walk off with the loot, somebody brings in a lockbox with…well, no point in giving away what’s in it, even if the play’s pleasures have less to do with the secret that finally puts everything right than with the merry chaos involved in the going wrong.
Suffice it to say that London society gets well and truly satirized, that director Michael Kahn’s production has a light touch and a grand look, and that even the wordier bits of Congreve’s banter seem enchanting when it’s Veanne Cox doing the talking. Cox was the uproariously disenchanted Kate Sullen in Kahn’s staging of The Beaux’ Stratagem two years back, and she’s gloriously mischievous as The Way of the World’s sparkling Mrs. Millamant, a similarly savvy woman who’s equally corseted by convention—and every bit as determined not to let the stays pinch.
Christopher Innvar, who played a roguishly charming fortune-hunter opposite Cox’s pained, restless purebred in Beaux’ Stratagem, returns to partner her as a more reputable sort of social climber here; his Mirabell plainly isn’t above a little polite deception and his motives aren’t quite lily-white, but Innvar lets us glimpse the weariness behind the social maneuvering—and a baseline honesty that helps make sense of the comedy’s document-ex-machina finale.
Nancy Robinette, the city’s go-to dotty dame, frolics her way exuberantly through the part of Lady Wishfort, who’s the inappropriately coquettish matron with the harlot-red wig and the death grip on Millamant’s money. (Contracts and questions of personal property being newly hot topics back in Congreve’s day, apparently, the mechanics of The Way of the World’s comedy turn largely on whether Lady W. will find herself a man and thus cut the younger couple out of a fortune, and whether
that jealous husband—Andrew Long, playing Fainall as a genuinely nasty sort—
will find a way to snag everyone’s inheritance for himself.)
Floyd King and J. Fred Shiffman add immeasurably to the fun as the squabbling, snuff-taking fashion victims, Witwoud and Petulant, competing cluelessly with Mirabell for Millamant’s affections; likewise Colleen Delany, Todd Scofield and Julie-Ann Elliott, as servants whose often improvised additions to their masters’ schemes help send things so thoroughly off the rails.
And they’re all, to a person, upholstered head to toe (by the marvelous Jane Greenwood) in a high-Restoration explosion of ruffles, cuffs, ribbons, and fringes. Collectively, they’re a virtuosic sartorial exercise, a fugue and variations all in the key of green—the color of money, the color of envy, and the color of fresh starts, too.
Fresh starts, of course, are what everyone gets at the end of a comedy, with the money all sorted and the envious all defanged, and by the time Kahn puts his cast through a happy little curtain-call gavotte, you might just feel ready to face the ways of the real world again.