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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The rich merchant’s virtuous daughter secretly marries Dad’s poor but honest assistant. While she’s waiting anxiously for the right moment to spring the news, the bankrupt baronet who’s been planning a fiscally advantageous marriage to her social-climber sister turns up with his ancient nobleman uncle in tow. And after many a mixed signal and misconstrued silence, both of these distinguished gentlemen fall for…

What? Oh—yeah, you probably have, if only because The Clandestine Marriage is cut from the same bright cloth as the snappy social satires of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith—two playwrights who, along with Marriage co-author David Garrick, rejected the stiff sentimentality of 18th-century English comedy and brought a breath of fresh, skeptical air onto the London stage. They were better craftsmen, those two, and their best shows (Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal) get produced more often. But if nothing else, the Folger Theatre’s handsomely upholstered mounting of Marriage earns duty points for introducing local audiences to Garrick, who made up for his writerly shortcomings with a stellar career as both an actor of incomparable range and an impresario of considerable savvy. (For one thing, he helped convince his public that Shakespeare deserved that spot at the apex of the theatrical pantheon, as a classically Folger exhibition, including the original Marriage manuscript, makes clear.)

Happily, the show’s a minor treat in itself—frequently funny, occasionally acid, lively aside from a couple of slow stretches, and in its day as topical as an evening with Eddie Izzard. On the surface a serviceable if untidily built comedy, it’s also a pocket social history of an expansionist Hanoverian England and a portrait of an entrepreneurial empire bursting at the seams with upwardly mobile lawyers, ambitious young warehouse managers, bourgeois women feverish with dreams of marrying into a title, and cash-starved gentry spoiled and cynical enough to make those fantasies come true. Garrick and co-author George Colman named most of ’em with a wink and a nudge: There’s Sterling, the merchant whose money will make aristocrats out of his grandchildren; Lovewell, the good-hearted but penniless working man who’s anxious to win Sterling’s affection the way he’s already won his daughter Fanny’s; and Lord Ogleby, the old rake of an earl who’s hoping to revive his rotting family tree with an infusion of Sterling. There’s even a deliciously nasty passing reference to Viscount Squander, the debauched young nobleman at the center of William Hogarth’s wildly popular etching series Marriage A-la-Mode, whose biting commentary on England’s decrepit aristocracy and its assiduously aspirational merchant class was one of the play’s inspirations.

Tony Cisek wraps the proceedings in a pretty pastel set that’s all about artifice and layers and levels, and Kate Turner-Walker’s plush costumes demonstrate plenty of broad wit—bring sunglasses for the moment Michael Tolaydo’s cheerfully crass Sterling emerges in his best company’s-coming suit. And Richard Clifford’s staging features a range of winningly rich performances, from the easy naturalism of Aubrey Deeker and Jenna Sokolowski’s young lovers to the impish matched set of Catherine Flye, Susan Lynskey, and Ted van Griethuysen, who all three know how to play stylized comedy without losing sight of the people beneath the caricatures. If not everyone else onstage can walk that tightrope quite as confidently—well, it wouldn’t be a high-wire act if it were easy, now would it?

Flye plays Sterling’s deliriously snooty widowed sister, her diction all hoit and overenunciated toit as she rampages about in preparation for the arrival of “the qualllity,” terrorizing the servants and pleading with Sterling not to be quite so “wulgar.” Lynskey is her younger, smoother copy, all condescension and calculation in the opening scenes as she rummages through a box of bijoux and teases her little sister, Fanny, about her future with the impoverished Lovewell. (“Love and a cottage,” she sniffs. “Give me indifference and a coach and six.”) If the evening’s high point isn’t the delighted squeak her otherwise glacially mannered Betsey lets slip at the mere thought of her imminent grandeur, I don’t know what else it might be.

Actually, I do: It’s the slow, sly, deliciously self-satisfied moue that van Griethuysen makes in the audience’s direction after one of Lord Ogleby’s particularly showy moments. This was a part Garrick wrote for himself, most everyone agrees, even if he never played it, and van Griethuysen slips it on like a Savile Row suit coat, swanning around the stage in that preposterous nightcap and stealing every scrap of focus left unattended. It’s effortless, masterful comedy—and it’s even a little moving, too, once the plot’s goofy twists leave Ogleby both vulnerable and in a position to victimize others.

Marriage is hardly a classic, if only because the co-authors’ famously strained relationship shows up pretty plainly in the play’s sloppy structure—what’s with that chatty maid who takes up so much air in the opening scene, only to disappear until the last half-hour? And why make such a fuss about Fanny’s secret pregnancy if you’re never going to write the payoff scene that lets the other characters in on it? But it can be pretty charming—and when it’s firing on all cylinders, with Garrick taking his best shots at 18th-century culture and the Folger’s lively production making sure we hear the contemporary echoes loud and clear, it can be pretty damn satisfying, too.CP