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The Way of the World

Veanne Cox and Christopher Innvar lead a strong cast in William Congreve's amusing if convoluted comedy.

By Washington, DC
Veanne Cox and Christopher Innvar
in The Way of the World
(© Carol Rosegg)
Veanne Cox and Christopher Innvar
in The Way of the World
(© Carol Rosegg)
William Congreve's The Way of the World, the English Restoration period comedy now at Shakespeare Theatre Company, requires modern theatergoers to put the plot aside and concentrate on the conversation. There are many gems to be found there; some are hilarious and comically shallow, while others are clever and insightful. Even when the actors -- under Michael Kahn's usual sharp direction -- struggle with the convoluted story lines, they revel in the playfulness of the dialogue.

Congreve seems to enjoy putting characters onstage who mock the idle, wealthy patrons who attended theater in the Restoration, a period when the arts began to flourish after a long government crackdown. While preying on their foibles, Congreve casts a jaundiced, but wildly funny, eye on the war between the sexes. Courtship, honesty, and fidelity are tested, and money, sex, and power are explored before the characters straighten out all the alliances.

The play's main focus are Mrs. Millamant (Veanne Cox) and Mirabell (Christopher Innvar), who love each other, but in order to end up as a couple have to separately create an interlocking series of deceptions involving much of fashionable London society. Innvar is a steady, solid presence, playing for laughs without abandoning the character's resolute personality. Indeed, Congreve has some serious things to say about the ways society controls women, and Mirabell comes to be seen as something of a modern-thinking hero in that regard.

Cox brings the fluttering, mercurial Millamant to life in a comic tour de force. Early in act two, she and Innvar archly negotiate marriage terms, playing for big laughs while scoring points about the state of that union that resonate today. The Washington-area's clown princes, Floyd King and J. Fred Shiffman, are on hand as particularly foppish examples of grasping aristocrat-wannabes, Meanwhile, local fave Nancy Robinette burns up the stage as the ridiculous Lady Wishfort; she's especially funny as she practices her demeanor and posture while awaiting the arrival of a beau, trying and abandoning a series of poses. As Lady Wishfort's mischievous, scheming maid, the aptly named Foible, Colleen Delaney is a puckish delight.

Set designer Wilson Chin has created a stylized world almost entirely in creams, while Jane Greenwood's period costumes are ludicrously sumptuous, especially for the males -- who are done up entirely in shades of green, accenting Congreve's themes of envy and avarice.

The work must not have been popular at the time, as the play failed to amuse Congreve's contemporaries and he never returned to play writing. That, as they say, is the way of the world. But thankfully, the world has turned so theatergoers get another chance to view this amusing play.


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