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“These women are smarter than they look,” proclaims the brash, flamboyant know-it-all Charles (Brandon Espinoza) midway through Theresa Rebeck’s adaptation of William Congreve’s Restoration comedy The Way of the World. He delivers the line with a sense of surprise when he realizes that the female characters have outmaneuvered their male counterparts, but the sentiment holds true throughout the play. As the male characters trip over themselves in search of sex and money, the women reveal that they, in fact, hold the power in most situations. It’s an appropriate theme for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which celebrates the work of tenacious female playwrights from around the world.
Though the play has its origins in 18th century England, Rebeck’s version is set in The Hamptons in the 21st century. There we meet a group of twenty-somethings so rich they don’t have to work, and instead entertain themselves by throwing parties, attending gallery openings, and swapping sexual partners. Mae (Eliza Huberth) has the most money of all of them—a cool $600 million, the origins of which the audience never learns—but wants to give it all away to support infrastructure improvements in Haiti. She’s on the outs with her caddish beau Henry (Luigi Sottile), a habitual skirt and money chaser, because he slept with her aunt and guardian, Rene (Kristine Nielsen). Her friends try to cheer her up and encourage her to stop thinking about Henry and start thinking about spending her money on ostentatious things. All the while, these so-called friends are having their own trysts with Henry.
In this context Mae becomes a sympathetic character, the one rich person on Long Island who isn’t content with the repeated drink-shop-party cycle, an adaptation of Jersey Shore’s gym-tan-laundry for the one percent. But though she pines for Henry, whom she really seems to love, and leafs through books about Haiti, her lack of follow-through is puzzling. Has her unstable family life made her afraid of venturing out on her own, or does the lingering possibility of a relationship keep her in place? Midway through the second act, you’re tempted to shake her by the shoulders and point her toward the nearest exit while reminding her that she’s so much better than the aimless crew she hangs around with.
Mae’s indictment of the uber-rich doesn’t quite stick, nor does Rene’s theory—she says that the rich support the poor by employing them. The character with the best insight into how the other half lives is the waitress (Ashley Austin Morris), who works six jobs. But when she directly addresses the audience, she spills the less flattering details of the wealthy clientele she serves with humor and a touch of world-weariness.
Creating that bright and breezy world in a theater covered in wood and stone is no small task, but when hit with some blue lights, Alexander Dodge’s central structure looks like an oceanfront mansion. The cubbies on the two-level structure are filled with the too-expensive-to-be-tacky items a bored rich person might buy—china figurines, jewel-encrusted broaches, and eccentric hats. Linda Cho’s similarly eccentric costumes combine Restoration-era shapes and contemporary preppy styling, giving the audience further insight into the ways the characters carry themselves. They’re also just fun to look at, so bring out more of them—aren’t these people obsessed with shopping?
Thematically, it’s clear that Rebeck wants her adaptation to focus on the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. That idea comes through, but what makes the play fascinating is the relationships between the characters and the ways they abuse the people they love. Their desires, both long-term and temporary, are wrapped up in other individuals, something you don’t typically see in a comedy that includes regular uproarious laughter. It’s this balance of light and dark that allows The Way of the World, after 317 years, to still have a place in our world.
At the Folger Theatre to Feb. 11. 201 East Capitol St. SE. $35—$79. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.