Get local news delivered straight to your phone

“I believe in the inequality of men,” says the exquisitely regal title character in Ferenc Molnar’s romantic comedy, Olympia, shortly after sending her handsome but nonaristocratic suitor packing.

Actress Allyson Currin utters the line matter-of-factly, making it the sort of declaration you fully expect her to regret by curtain’s fall. In reverse-Cinderella stories like Olympia, haughty princesses are forever falling head-over-sequinned-heels for commoners—especially dashing, enlisted commoners who wear gold braid on their tunics. It’s all part of the escapist-theater game.

This particular princess, however, is about to discover that the “romantic peasant” she has dismissed for his own good (on her mother’s instructions, of course) has sturdy, proletarian principles. From their formal attire, you’d swear Olympia and the other Austro-Hungarian royals with whom she’s celebrating the Emperor’s birthday were creatures of an earlier century, but the play is set in the years right around World War I in a Europe that’s being socially transformed in ways they’re only beginning to appreciate.

Capt. Kovacs (Christopher Michael Bauer) is the sort of modern thinker who bridles at the notion that mere matters of pedigree should interfere with a man’s wooing a woman. “For such ambition,” he is told by Olympia, “my ancestors broke yours on the wheel.” If she has felt an attraction for him, it was “only as an ethnological specimen.” Later, when he has turned the tables on her in one of those identity shifts playwrights delight in springing on characters in well-made plays, she will call him a “Balkan brigand” and worse.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Now, in fairness, Olympia has been told by her obsessively correct mother that it’s not nice to torture men by prolonging doomed flirtations (“Be humane—strike to kill”), and she’s just trying to be kind. Still, her words are harsher than those of the fairy-tale princesses from whom she seems to be taking her social cues, and the fate Molnar has in store for her turns out to be surprisingly stern. Not that the playwright is above toying with Olympia (and with the audience) on the way to his cynically modern conclusion. He makes her suitor a cad, but so attractive a cad she ends up pleading with him to be more vile. “This is my martyrdom,” Olympia protests upon being forced to beg for the seduction she’s supposed to be resisting. “Let me suffer; I don’t want to enjoy my martyrdom.” Both Currin and Bauer are so natural, fresh, and self-possessed that their bright romantic sparring is every bit as persuasive as the tears Molnar will later cause them to shed.

If audiences know Molnar at all these days, it’s for his tragic romance, Liliom, on which Rodgers and Hammerstein based Carousel. Washington Stage Guild, which generally tries to devote its energies to lesser-known works by respected playwrights, has been his champion in past seasons, mounting capable productions of The Guardsman, The Play’s the Thing, and A Tale of the Wolf. But Olympia is by far the most intriguing of its Molnarian outings—a sophisticated, witty, surprisingly revealing visit to the dark side of early-century pomp and circumstance.

Bill Largess’ briskly urbane production is hardly without missteps. The acting—apart from that of the terrific romantic leads—is only adequate. Andrew Ross Wynn is hilarious enough as a goofy Gendarme (who clearly went through basic training with Dom DeLuise) that it doesn’t really matter if the character ends up seeming the sum of his physical mannerisms. It’s a bit part, so overdoing may be the only way to register with an audience.

Elsewhere, though, what registers is mostly a lack of the regal bearing that should come naturally to bluebloods. Bill Hamlin initially seems to be on the right track, but he ultimately settles for making Molnar’s woman-dominated Prince (Olympia’s father), a hail-fellow-well-met, while as his frivolous wife, Jewell Robinson is just a fan-fluttering pretender in a beaded gown. And both are better than Chuck Young’s pedantic Count and Elizabeth Stripe’s gossipy Countess, who would have trouble passing social muster at a country club, let alone a royal court.

The physical production is stronger, with an attractive hotel lounge contributed by Carl F. Gudenius and efficient lighting by Marianne Meadows. Washington Stage Guild’s designers always work minor miracles on a tight budget, so the fact that on opening night a couple of costumer William Pucilowsky’s handsome gowns were uncharacteristically ill-fitting (less plausible with Hungarian royals than with un-titled Shavians) can probably be put down to deadline pressures.

Whatever. The production’s flaws aren’t serious enough to keep Stage Guild audiences from reveling in the play itself. A fascinating rediscovery, it caps a season in which the troupe’s clear box-office attractions were The Chalk Garden and Heartbreak House, productions that might just as easily have shown up at Arena Stage if that company weren’t currently devoting itself solely to American playwrights. Olympia—a play most D.C. patrons will never have heard of, by an author who is scarcely more familiar—is a potent reminder of the value of this scrappy company and of the impulse behind its founding 13 years ago, when works by untrendy authors weren’t getting much of a hearing hereabouts. Even today, there’s not another company in town at which this play would make so much sense.

Speaking of making sense, what could Jim Petosa have been thinking when he allowed all of the main characters in Equus—including Dr. Dysart, the repressed shrink who is pointedly incapable of feeling passion—to spend the better part of the evening shouting at one another?

Most productions leave the shouting to Alan Strang, the confused teenager who gets remanded to Dysart’s care for inexplicably blinding six horses with a metal spike. Initially, Strang shouts only advertising jingles. Later, he graduates to epithets and accusations. The others—Alan’s parents, the judge who sends him to Dysart, and the doctor himself—should, by rights, represent the sober side of society.

At Olney Theatre, they do so at the top of their lungs. The judge (Helen Hedman) raises her voice to a yell every time Dysart mentions that he envies the boy his grand passions. Alan’s deeply religious mother (MaryBeth Wise) bellows at her atheist husband (James Slaughter), who then roars at Alan (Scott Fortier), who shouts so much in his flashbacks that it seems astonishing he hasn’t been put in a doctor’s care before puberty. And Dysart (Mitchell Hébert), though he begins quietly enough to seem a reasonably rational therapist, becomes so agitated after a while that he can’t even keep his voice down when he’s trying to hypnotize the lad.

Nor is stridency the production’s chief problem. Even more damaging is the director’s visualization of the steeds that are so central to author Peter Shaffer’s psychological detective tale. Most productions mimic John Dexter’s original staging by having six actors gallop on as needed, snorting and strutting while wearing eerily sculptural, nonliteral horse helmets. The styling allows directors to conjure provocative, quasi-mythic images for the dramatically telling sequence in which Alan describes becoming sexually aroused while taking naked nighttime rides on the beasts. The sight of the boy astride—or being cradled by—one of these fierce theatrical centaurs is what most viewers remember most vividly after the curtain falls on Equus.

Petosa’s staging reduces the centaur metaphor to something perilously close to porno-kitsch. He takes just one actor (Christopher Lane), strips him to orange body makeup and a loincloth, and dispenses with any attempt to make him actually look horselike except a ponytail-ish mane affixed to Lane’s back—and hoof-boots. He then has Fortier fall to his knees in front of this virtually naked male figure, making the play’s homoerotic implications so blatant that audiences would themselves need to be blinded to miss them.

In most other respects, the production is attractive and professional. James Kronzer has come up with a nifty, white-on-white, multidoor setting that looks a lot like an operating theater in a medical school, complete with onstage seats situated high above the action for as many as 18 theater patrons. Performers who haven’t been pushed into emotional overdrive—Carolyn Pasquantonio as Alan’s girlfriend, for instance—are fine. And the contributions of lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner and sound man David McKeever are as professional as anyone might wish.

This is not, however, an Equus that resonates in the memory for as long as it takes to get out to the parking lot. Considering the media attention that’s currently being lavished on inexplicably violent teenage boys, that’s quite an accomplishment.CP