At the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre to May 2

There are reasons to see The Dresser. But they’re probably not the ones you’ve been sold.

The Folger Shakespeare Library seems to be marketing Ronald Harwood’s sentimental old chestnut as “a touching backstage drama” and as something of a classic—source of the much-praised Albert Finney-Tom Courtenay film and a stirring homage to both the wartime tenacity of Britain’s public and the glories of English drama.

Pshaw. The Dresser is a play about great theater, but it isn’t great theater.

Nor is it anything like a laugh riot, though like the unparalleled backstage farce Noises Off, it creates narrative tension by keeping the audience guessing about whether a motley troupe of thespians will get their acts together in time for their probably ill-advised show to go on. Sir (Ted van Griethuysen), a noted but not quite eminent Shakespearean, is crumbling under the weight of age, infirmity, and the punishing repertory he’s put together for his second- or possibly even third-rate troupe, which keeps touring the hustings, trying to pretend it doesn’t notice that bombs are falling next to the theater and that most of the better young actors have donned uniforms and marched off to die.

When The Dresser opens, it’s looking unlikely that the redoubtable old relic will be in any shape to deliver King Lear’s “Howl, howl”; he’s literally collapsed from exhaustion, unable to do anything but weep, weep. His hollowed-out actress wife (Catherine Flye) pushes, sensibly, for cancellation, but his bossy, territorial manservant (known in the business as a “dresser”) insists that Sir will, as always, be ready when the curtain rises.

The to-play-or-not-to-play business, though, is just so much framing device. Behind all the backstage distractions (wind machines and socialist gasbags, opportunistic ingénues and lovelorn, spinsterish stage managers), The Dresser wants to be a two-sided character study: The dresser (Floyd King) justifies his title billing with the kind of fierce, almost frantic devotion that is both blessing and burden to its object, and it’s his psychology, as much as Sir’s overriding and sometimes overripe devotion to his muse, that’s meant to fascinate us. But Harwood—or maybe it’s director Michael Tolaydo—can’t seem to decide whether these two characters’ grandiose emotions are to be taken seriously or chuckled uncomfortably at, so when it comes to crisis time, the play—at least in this production—just doesn’t come together.

It could be argued, if anyone insists, that The Dresser has something trenchant to say about the peculiarly British way its central characters never really admit to each other the depths of their mutual affection. And it is only fair to acknowledge that the decidedly lean drama is larded here and there with little moments that, perfectly handled, could be stirring depictions of indomitable courage and devotion to craft.

But the play is in no way a great piece of dramatism; unnecessary subordinate characters litter the playing area, moving unconvincingly through meaningless little subplots just so the chief twosome will have targets for their witticisms, and, in at least one crucial moment, Harwood turns to Shakespeare for a dramatic climax rather than bothering to build his own.

Curiously enough, you may find yourself not caring all that much. The Folger’s production has compensations that may keep you from noticing how blatantly Harwood is pushing your sympathy buttons. Cam Magee’s sensible, sad-eyed stage manager, Catherine Flye’s reserved, brittle leading lady, and Albert Coia’s rabbity little Fool are among them, but the production’s cardinal virtues are the delightful array of resonances it sets up, both for theater lovers in general and for regular patrons of the nationally known company that once made the Folger’s space its home.

The general associations will bring a smile to anyone who’s ever stood onstage or watched from the wings: the shared delusion that lets a wig transform a 50-something actress into Lear’s daughter; the ambition and naked need that stamp all actors, of whatever ability; the disillusioned asperity and helpless hero worship that can coexist in the backstage professional.

It may not occur to everyone in the audience that it’s probably been years since van Griethuysen and Floyd King worked together on this particular stage; once you remember that they’ve both been Shakespeare Theatre stalwarts since long before the Lansburgh, though, you’ll take their supremely comfortable onstage relationship a little less for granted.

Likewise, watching Sir’s expert, automatic gestures as he applies Lear’s age-worn features at his makeup table is merely interesting until you remember that van Griethuysen is scheduled to tackle that pinnacle role at Shakespeare Theatre next season. You’ll start to look for clues to his approach, to wonder how much of Sir’s outsize style will carry over, to remember what it is you love and loathe about the way van Griethuysen uses his plummy rasp.

King and van Griethuysen both seem to relish flirting with the hypertheatricality that a play about players allows; their delight generally enlivens the proceedings, though King might have been wiser to more ruthlessly suppress the personality that has made him Washington’s supreme Shakespearean clown. There are places where his comic reflexes affect line readings for the worse, diluting what emotional resonance Harwood has been able to build into the story.

Set designer Joseph B. Musumeci Jr. seems to have been similarly intoxicated by the chance to put onstage what usually stays hidden: He’s designed an impressively clever stage that swings and slides to alternately showcase Sir’s dressing room and the theater’s wings, with their special-effects equipment, the giant electrical switches and fly-ropes and other paraphernalia of theater’s artificers.

What’s endearing about The Dresser is its rueful celebration of the element that translates that artifice into art: theater people, with all their petty failings and irrational passions, all their odd superstitions and peculiar habits. Harwood loves them, and of course we do, too.CP

More from WCP