Richard Brinsley Sheridan comedies like The Rivals and The School for Scandal have been making appearances in New York recently, so it feels only appropriate that one of his contemporaries, Oliver Goldsmith, should also take the stage right now. And thankfully, the jokes and one-liners in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, a flagrantly silly comedy about love and mistaken identity, still hit the mark. Though the Actors Company Theatre production of the play, now running at the Clurman at Theatre Row, initially stumbles, it delivers solid laughs with some entertaining and appropriately off-the-wall performances.
The main story line of Goldsmith's self-described "laughing comedy" (a revolt against the weepy, "sentimental comedies" of the age) revolves around Charles Marlow, a young bachelor who brims with confidence when dallying with working-class women but becomes a shivering bundle of nerves in the presence of high-born ladies (Jeremy Beck brilliantly shifts between Marlow's nervous and blustering extremes). Traveling to the home of his father's associate Mr. Hardcastle (whom Marlow has never met), Marlow and his friend Hastings are tricked by Tony Lumpkin (Mrs. Hardcastle's son from a previous marriage played with rascally energy by Richard Thieriot) into thinking that Mr. Hardcastle is a common innkeeper (John Rothman plays the jowly, outraged gentleman).
While at the "inn," Marlow unexpectedly runs into Kate (played with unflagging cheer by Mairin Lee), the woman his father wants him to marry. He's so terrified, though, he can't even look at her. So Kate decides to don the unthreatening guise of a barmaid, stooping in social status to conquer his heart. After a series of ridiculous intrigues, more pranks by the puckish Lumpkin, and an unexpected visit from Marlow's father (a charmingly flustered James Prendergast), Marlow discovers that his love has the power to overcome his fear.
That's just half of Goldsmith's zany plot. Complicating the action is a second, less interesting romantic story line involving Hastings (Tony Roach ably plays the mostly straight-man role), Constance Neville (Mrs. Hardcastle's niece and ward played sweetly by Justine Salata), and Mrs. Hardcastle (Cynthia Darlow as a delightful, meddling English mother). Despite Mrs. Hardcastle's interventions, it's hardly a spoiler to say that love conquers all for this pair as well.
Director Scott Alan Evans knows this play is meant to be sheer fun, and that's how he begins it, with the cast entering singing a jaunty introductory ditty. But the tone quickly downshifts in the first few scenes, which feel staid by comparison. Not until Marlow's nervous first encounter with Kate, during which Beck shakes his entire body like someone handling a jackhammer, does the production seem to find its comical center of gravity. At one point, Beck leads a volunteer from the audience to make a cameo as the servant Diggory. Actors Darlow and Rothman too suddenly camp up their roles as the Hardcastles with over-the-top emoting, and Thieriot revs up his Lumpkin performance during a scene of artificially amorous groping with the equally funny Salata. This is the comedy we were waiting for.
Brett Banakis' set design — a simple scaffolding of wooden beams that embraces the stage and audience — neatly suggests a rustic inn and makes for quick scene changes from indoors to out. Tracy Christensen's costumes recall the 18th century with ruffled cravats for the men; despite Kate and Constance's short dresses, this staging, thankfully, shies away from updating the action to modern times.
Though it slouches for a few scenes in the beginning, the Actors Company Theatre production rights itself in the end and delivers some good old-fashioned hilarity. Originally titled The Mistakes of a Night, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer still packs a comical wallop, and the Actors Company Theatre proves it — no mistake about that.
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