Nostalgia may seem the wrong word, but it’s what came over me about 15 minutes into the Folger Theatre’s agile comedy of manners She Stoops to Conquer. Not for Oliver Goldsmith’s play, of course. I may be getting on in years, but I’m not quite ancient enough to have fond recollections of the 1773 premiere.
What I do recall is the not-quite-so-distant past when Arena Stage and the occasional visiting troupe at the Kennedy Center mounted generously upholstered, briskly comic productions of this sort of warhorse—regarded them, in fact, as their calling—with light-footed companies costumed in heavy silks, every actor knowing the full value of an arched eyebrow, a slow take, and a whispered aside.
At the Folger, those days come flooding back the moment the curtain opens on the Hardcastle estate—all rich wood paneling and stuffed hunting trophies. By that time, several scenes have already been played in front of the curtain, introducing the various characters and setting the plot in motion. Mr. Hardcastle (Ralph Cosham) has established that he expects his household to welcome a pair of aristocratic suitors when they arrive to woo his daughter Kate (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her cousin Constance (Kosha Engler). And at a nearby tavern, those very suitors—Mr. Marlow (David Fendig) and Mr. Hastings (Scot McKenzie)—are being misled into believing that the Hardcastle estate is a country inn, run by an eccentric proprietor who fancies himself landed gentry. This setup ensures that when Marlow and Hastings arrive, they will treat Mr. Hardcastle and his family as hired help, while their hosts, though anxious to make a good impression, will bridle at their impudence.
All of this is neatly played and, nearly as important, staged in a spare, almost sceneryless way that acknowledges that it’s just exposition—a sort of situational skeleton on which to build the comedy to come. Then the curtain opens and the play proper begins, with gleaming candlesticks, burnished paneling, thick carpets, and a situation that deepens to match the lushness of Tony Cisek’s scenery. Marlow turns out to be painfully shy around women of his own class but passionate with serving wenches, and Kate allows him to think she’s a barmaid so he’ll woo her with fervor. Hastings, meanwhile, must wrest Constance from the clutches of Mrs. Hardcastle (Catherine Flye), who wants her to marry her idiot son Tony (Bruce Nelson). There’s an inheritance to be dealt with, and there are class issues, and servants who’ve never dealt with aristocrats before—all sorts of comic complications.
Richard Clifford’s sharply observant staging augments Goldsmith’s plot twists with inspired visual jests—servants using a bellows to fan an electric fireplace, for instance, then being startled when it switches abruptly on. The director also creates a smoothly functioning ensemble from actors who hail from all sorts of other venues. Cosham is perhaps most naturally at home in a comedy of manners, having excelled in plenty of them at Arena in his time. His patriarch anchors the proceedings authoritatively, and Flye is a nice match for him, marshalling affectations that occasionally make her Mrs. Hardcastle appear to be channeling Dame Edna. As the main lovers, Norris and Fendig bring their Shakespearean training to bear, turning Marlow and Kate into a sort of gender-reversed Kate and Petruchio. The scenes in which Marlow, all but paralyzed by timidity, can’t bring himself to look his extremely receptive mistress in the eye are flat-out uproarious.
Elsewhere, there are nifty surprises. I’ve associated McKenzie chiefly with the impassioned heroes of contemporary dramas (A Clockwork Orange, Terra Nova), yet here he seems born to wear breeches and a waistcoat while spouting brittle witticisms. Engler’s delicate Constance is enchanting, and each of the servants has his or her own schtick, none funnier than the open-mouthed, stiff-armed awkwardness practiced by Eric Bloom. And though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised any more by the ever-reliable Nelson, whose ability to build entire characters around darting glances and hesitation has always reminded me of John Lithgow’s approach to comedy, I was blindsided by his lumpish Tony, who displays an earthier, almost feral quality in becoming as amusing a buffoon as local audiences have encountered in several seasons.
Dan Covey’s deft lighting and Mary Ann Powell’s sumptuous-on-a-budget costumes are strong assets in a production that’s as light on its feet as it is brightly comic, and that should, once word gets around, sell out to the rafters.
In a town like Washington, you’d expect Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s eloquent dissertation on the politics of physics at the dawn of the Atomic Age, to do the same. A hypothetical chronicle of a mystery-shrouded 1941 meeting between Nazi Germany’s leading atomic scientist, Werner Heisenberg, and his estranged Jewish mentor and friend, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, the play offers intrigue on three fronts—political, personal, and scientific—all of it articulated in the edgily pointed phrasing for which Frayn is celebrated. It’s a show tailor-made for mystery buffs and conspiracy theorists, and brisk sales for the KenCen’s well-cast touring edition suggest there are plenty of both locally.
Designer Peter J. Davison has outfitted the stage to resemble a medical operating amphitheater as it might be designed for the U.N. building. Curved, sanded concrete walls circle the back of the playing area, with two tiers of audience seats inserted, up above the actors. The stage floor has a circular pattern that seems to represent either the globe or an atom, depending on whether conversations tend toward the macro or the micro.
The talk swings both ways, pretty much from the opening lines, in which Bohr (Len Cariou) and his wife, Margrethe (Mariette Hartley), continue to wonder what could have brought Heisenberg (Hank Stratton) to Copenhagen at so tense a moment. They’re speaking from the hereafter (“Now we’re all dead and gone…”), but the mystery persists. Was the German author of the uncertainty principle (which holds that it’s possible to know the speed or the location of an object, but not both at once) seeking information about Allied efforts to develop an atom bomb? Was he seeking solidarity with other scientists to block such development? Was he simply looking up old friends about whom he was worried? And what of Bohr’s contributions to a field of study that led to the development of the most devastating weapon in history and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths? The questions bounce around the playing area just like the characters, orbiting each other as electrons do nuclei, before smashing into ideas that deflect them in some contrary direction.
Performances at the Eisenhower are sharp, focused, and ideally matched—three bristling personalities turning the world inside out to, in the words of one character, “put man back at the center of the universe.” Cariou’s Bohr is gruff and occasionally patronizing, but explosive when crossed. Stratton’s Heisenberg is as oily as he is gregarious—making his emotional loyalties appropriately tough to pin down. And Hartley’s Margrethe is as compelling when she’s silently observing the two scientists from the sidelines as when she’s weighing in with sharp-tongued rebukes to them.
Frayn makes the dynamics clear from the start—Heisenberg leads the way, Bohr makes sense of things, and Margrethe humanizes—with the result that the political debates and even the scientific arguments are easy to follow. Michael Blakemore’s direction makes exceptionally clever use of movement—apart from the actors, his only tools are three chairs and a few daggerlike shafts of light—in shaping a conversation that’s virtually guaranteed to stick with audiences long after the lights dim. CP