Actors, we’re told, are a breed apart—demanding, temperamental, vain creatures who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then wreak havoc in gossip columns.
‘Twas ever thus, at least according to the folks who write their scripts. Shakespeare pictured the interpreters of his plays as hams in Hamlet, as buffoons in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A millennium or so earlier, Plautus had portrayed actors as bawds and drunks, and he was taking his cues from Aristophanes before him. Contemporary Western playwrights from George S. Kaufman to Michael Frayn have peered backstage and found everything from chicanery to posturing, and evidently things weren’t terribly different in Eastern Europe between world wars, when Ferenc Molnar was writing brisk little backstage comedies in Hungary to be performed as curtain raisers for his more substantial work.
Most of these theatrical miniatures didn’t make the cut when such popular Molnar pieces as Liliom and The Guardsman were being adapted for mountings in the United States—which means that the Washington Stage Guild’s unearthing of three of them for a civilized little evening the troupe is calling All the World will strike audiences fond of an earlier era’s boulevard comedies as a pleasant discovery.
The evening’s opener, A Prologue to “King Lear,” is the most interesting of the three—a farce built at the intersection of theater, academe, and the world that both disciplines purport to examine. It begins with a stage manager (Cody Lindquist) smiling to herself as she dims the lights on a center-stage throne (“Good, they’ll barely see him”) only to discover that the man who would be king tonight is, in fact, quite anxious not to be seen. Banati (Conrad Feininger) races onto the stage in a blind panic, sputtering so incoherently that only slowly does it become clear that he’s being pursued by a jealous husband. With the performance about to begin, he dons Lear’s regal robes, white wig, and beard, but he’s in no shape to act.
The arrival of the husband, Dr. Erno (Tony Gudell), at first seems to set up a fairly predictable confrontation, but when Erno turns out to be a college professor who specializes in Shakespeare and can quote Lear right back at the actors, the twists become more intriguing. The thespians, it seems, generally deal with such situations by utilizing stage tricks to appear commanding and larger than life. Steven Carpenter, in costume as one of Lear’s co-stars, gets plenty of comic mileage out of the difference between the attention-getting powers of everyday speech and theatrical projection, for instance, and it does appear that Erno is nonplused when he must confront an aging Lear rather than a suave leading man. But the academic is as aware of the influences to which he’s reacting as he is susceptible to them. As the lines start to blur between actor and character, he falls back on the tricks of his own trade—and is soon discoursing on the likelihood that he’ll strike Lear/Banati, complete with footnotes in German.
When Erno’s ninny of a wife (Kathleen Coons) arrives and starts giggling helplessly at the sight of a dashing paramour who is now seemingly aged and decrepit, a more down-to-earth view is introduced—a view that, amusingly enough, is dismissed as “moronic” by both the academically and the theatrically inclined popinjays in whose company she finds herself. Molnar’s mockery notwithstanding, his sympathies are clear.
After intermission, two shorter playlets deal with variations on similar themes in a more glancing fashion. The first, Still Life, finds an actor (Carpenter) berating an actress (Tricia McCauley) for infidelity. But as he catches her in lie after lie—and she catches him overplaying (“There is no reason to start crying right away”)—it becomes clear that this is a long-standing quarrel that has at least as much to do with theatrical missteps as with missteps in the bedroom. Neither performer can stand being upstaged, and both are chronic upstagers.
The evening’s final comedy, The Witch, concerns an actress (McCauley again) confronted by a jealous wife (Coons again). The wife has letters proving that the actress has been dallying with her husband, but such is the power of a strong theatrical personality on this unsuspecting outsider that she’s soon allowing herself to be convinced not only that there was no dalliance, but that the best way to save her marriage might be to encourage her husband to have one.
John MacDonald’s staging throughout the evening capitalizes on the silliness in the plotting, though he sometimes gets carried away with physical business that ends up seeming more strained than comic. Fortunately, the company is comfortable with the archness of Molnar’s dialogue, having produced several of his comedies in previous seasons. Feininger is in fine farcical fettle, acting almost entirely with his eyes once the rest of his face is obscured by Lear’s whiskers. McCauley and Carpenter are nicely matched as born hams, and Lindquist makes the theatrical maids in their midst amusingly dyspeptic.
All the World seems misordered, with its two frothy appetizers sequenced after the main course, but it’s still a feast of actorly affectations, and an elegant old-world take on the machinations behind the theater’s stock in trade—what one character terms “fake emotions and saltless tears.” CP