Christopher Evan Welch, Steven Boyer, and Jeremy Strong
in The Coward
(© Erin Baiano)
Christopher Evan Welch, Steven Boyer, and Jeremy Strong
in The Coward
(© Erin Baiano)
Nick Jones puts a shiny 18th-century veneer on a host of rather weighty subjects in the lighter-than-air confection, The Coward, the latest production from Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 initiative, at the Duke on 42nd Street. The show's a giddy romp that's been staged with flair by the increasingly indispensible director Sam Gold, who evinces a bevy of cunningly comic performances from his ensemble.

At the crux of the comedy -- which on many levels is a hip descendant of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals -- is the question of whether or not the young nobleman Lucidus Culling (Jeremy Strong) is manly enough to carry on his family's name. A flitting fop -- both characteristics which Strong handles ably as he skips and flounces across the stage while wearing Gabriel Berry's witty (and gorgeous) period costumes with flair -- Lucidus would rather spend time with his equally fey friends Gavin (imbued with a surprising depth of emotion by Stephen Ellis) and Robert (a grandly oily Steven Boyer) indulging in weekend pie-tasting parties in the park than thinking about such things as dueling.

Not surprisingly, Lucidus' father Nathaniel (a grave Richard Poe) sees things differently. He's appalled that he has had to defend his son's honor after hearing reports that the young man did nothing after his horse had been called fat. Stung by his father's admonishments, the sweet natured Lucidus picks a quarrel with a blind old man (Jarlath Controy) during an outing with his friends, and finds that, after he's injured the gentlemen, he's called upon to fight an actual duel with the man's son.

Lucidus figures that since the old man's gotten someone to fight on his behalf, he can do the same, and thus, Revolutionary War veteran Henry Blaine (a meticulously crafted turn by Christopher Evan Welch) enters the scene. High-spirited and blood-thirsty, Henry's eager to assume Lucidus' identity and fight on his behalf. After dealing with one duel, Henry finds that his service to Lucidus means that he actually has the chance to murder his enemies without fear of legal repercussions.

As the stakes continue to rise for Lucidus and Henry, Gold's production moves fleetly thanks to the cleverly conceived unit set from David Zinn, who's created an opulent, testestoerone-infused, parlor that can evoke both indoor and outdoor locations. And lighting designer Ben Stanton knows how to draw a theatergoer's eye to just the right detail.

Unfortunately, the work does contain a couple of minor flaws. Jones also heaps in an under-developed romantic subplot involving the vapidly vain, yet bizarrely well-read, Isabelle Dupree, whom Kristen Schaal plays with a host of hilarious tics and almost retro Valley Girl irony. While her sudden interest in Lucidus after he's gained fame as a savage duelist makes sense, continued references to how their fathers have been wooing on their behalf prior to her appearance are extraneous and overly ambiguous.

Similarly, although Gavin's continued efforts to prove his lineage after Lucidus has said that Gavin's not "a real nobleman," underscore the class issues that are at the heart of the play, this sidebar feels more intellectually than dramatically integrated into this otherwise delicious play.