We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Texts selected and adapted by Idea Vilariño and Mercedes Rein

Directed by Jorge Curi

At Gala Hispanic Theater to November 19

Chances are, the bright, brittle dialogue of Ferenc Molnar’s A Tale of the Wolf will be a surprise for just about everyone who hears it in Washington Stage Guild’s (WSG) production. The turn-of-the-century Hungarian playwright is chiefly known in this country as the author of Liliom, the sweet, whimsical play that provided the basis for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, and for the pair of sentimental comedies (The Guardsman and The Play’s the Thing) that WSG has mounted in recent seasons.

None of those works could prepare audiences for the animated squabbling Vilma Kelemen (Sarah Ripard) and her insanely jealous husband Eugen (Conrad Feininger) do in the first scenes of Tale of the Wolf. Eugen, who sees every man who so much as glances at his wife as a potential rival, admits he’s “pathological.” But he knows that he’s dull, his wife is pretty, and that that combination can be fatal. “If you want a word that sums up everything a woman finds unsatisfactory in a marriage, he notes, “it’s “husband.’ ”

Given Eugen’s behavior, you could hardly blame his faithful bride if she simply nodded in agreement. But she doesn’t, because she’s just seen a ghost of sorts—a rejected suitor named George Szabo (Bill Largess), who once vowed he’d either come back to claim her in triumph after making his name as a soldier, statesman, or artist, or he’d come back hat in hand, begging for a job as her servant. That George is now sitting at an adjacent table in a blue suit that gives Vilma no hint as to his social status, and that Eugen’s suspicions for the first time have some merit, open a world of comic possibilities. Without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say Molnar doesn’t leave many of them unexplored.

Though the fringes of John MacDonald’s production are a mess—populated by performances of sub-community-theater quality—the three principal parts are very nicely played. Feininger and Ripard have a series of question-and-answer riffs that are such models of timing and nuance that it’s easy to understand why the Lunts kept returning to Molnar’s work in the ’20s. One of the playwright’s favorite tricks is to have Eugen ask a single question over and over, getting a slightly more damning response each time, until his worst fears are confirmed. The hardening of Ripard’s and Feininger’s expressions during these exchanges is priceless. But then, so is practically everything either of them does. And Largess, a performer who has always seemed mannered to me, has finally been cast in a part that actually calls for him to don wigs and accents, and indulge in actorish excesses on every entrance. He’s a hoot, whether belting operatic arias or drawling insolently at his social betters.

With the sole exception of Mueen J. Ahmad, who plays various servants and soldiers capably, the rest of the cast is awful, making a hash of physical comedy and sometimes even having trouble crossing the stage without looking amateurish. It’s hard to say whether the stage business MacDonald’s given them would be amusing if better executed, but as things now stand, it certainly doesn’t add much to the production. Nor does the director’s handling of the final scene, which is played with a modern sensibility that makes too explicit a future the script deliberately leaves ambiguous. Still, patrons willing to overlook these peripheral problems will discover unexpected pleasures at the center of WSG’s production.

For most gringos, “tango” means ferociously seductive footwork and a whirl of black lace on the dance floor—the tight terpsichorean teamwork Hollywood once used to lend a Latin flavor to ’40s musicals. In Mano a Mano, an accomplished blend of tango-inspired poetry and song, Gala Hispanic Theater unveils a less familiar side of the music: a world of coded messages so specific to the form that, in addition to simultaneous English translation, the company provides a Spanish/Spanish glossary for those not on intimate terms with the Argentine slang known as “lunfardo.”

The evening has comparatively little movement but, as staged by Jorge Curi, it seems choreographed anyway. It finds dapper, tuxedoed Hugo Medrano either partnering the riveting Uruguayan singer/actress Dahd Sfeir in readings and sketches that illuminate tango’s moods, or standing back and letting her deeply resonant singing speak for itself. Though the lyrics are often devoted to love affairs gone wrong and an underworld of vaguely shady characters, there’s a tone of ironic detachment in the playing that lends the evening an engagingly light touch.

Tango actually originated as a distinctly male-dominated form in Uruguay and Argentina. It began as bravado and posturing to music played on street corners and the patios of brothels. Men awaiting their turns with prostitutes danced with one another, miming boastful tales of prowess in knife fights and in bed. Understandably marginal at first, the music was transformed by two developments in the early part of this century—the emergence of the bandoneón, a distinctive accordionlike instrument that came to define tango’s sound in the public mind, and the enormous influence of singer-songwriter Carlos Gardel, who wrote the song from which Mano a Mano takes its title.

Gardel popularized the form by cleaning it up and making it middle-class. He created a sort of shady hybrid figure as tango’s central character—a seductive ruffian/gaucho who flourished on the outskirts of society—and that innovation allowed the form to address not just rivalries and tortured love affairs, but also social concerns. Later developments have included the experimental, new-music direction taken by Astor Piazolla, and the emergence of woman composers, among them Idea Valariño, a co-creator of the evening at Gala (with writer Mercedes Rein).

This history isn’t chronicled outright in Mano a Mano, but it colors everything about the show, from the presence of so many Uruguayan influences—the creators, director, and leading lady—in an homage to what most people here think of as an exclusively Argentine form, to the literary choices made by the adaptors, who’ve included novel fragments and excerpts from plays by such important literary figures as Jorge Luis Borges and Juan Carlos Onetti. Also in the content of sketches such as “La mina del Ford” (“The Ford-Crazy Dame”), which lampoons the social pretenses of a woman for whom autos convey status, and the tango “Se viene la maroma” (“Trouble Ahead”), which sings animatedly of eliminating class distinctions by redistributing wealth.

Patrons who don’t speak Spanish must make some hard decisions about how to listen to such songs, which are backed by a splendid trio (Julio Cobelli and Ledo Urrutia on guitar, and Héctor Urtazú on bandoneón). Simultaneous translation of dialogue, though not ideal, can be tolerable. Simultaneous translation of song lyrics, though, is tantamount to sitting next to someone who’s rudely chatting all through a concert. If you want a sense of the poetic complexity that is the central point of Mano a Mano, you have to hear the translator, but that means you can’t fully appreciate the delicacy of Sfeir’s interpretation or the richness of her voice. On the other hand, if you turn off the headset, you’ll miss some terrific stories.

Among the most affecting is the one saved for last—a tale of tango-writing as haunting as any tango ever written. In it, Sfeir lowers her voice to play Anibal Troilo, a bandoneón player so celebrated that he gave tango’s traditional interpreters conniptions when he left his instrument to experimentalist Piazolla in his will.

The story, adapted from Carlos Maria Gutierrez’s “La noche de la cocina” (“That Night in the Kitchen”) chronicles the night Troilo received a 3 a.m. phone call from famed tango lyricist Enrique Santos Discepolo, who is said to have died of sadness after a mid-century military coup in Argentina. Discepolo is hospitalized and desperately ill when he calls to tell Troilo he’s composed lyrics for the best tango they’ll ever write together, and wants to recite them so Troilo can write the music. Freezing in his kitchen, Troilo puts down the phone briefly to get his coat, but brings back his bandoneón instead. The story of creation that follows is romanticized, haunting, ironic, and exquisitely sad, a fitting capper for an evening that has effectively celebrated those very qualities.