Christopher Innvar, Ian Bedford, and Veanne Coxin The Beaux' Stratagem(© Carol Rosegg)
Christopher Innvar, Ian Bedford, and Veanne Cox
in The Beaux' Stratagem
(© Carol Rosegg)
Streamlined and updated to satisfy contemporary comic sensibilities, George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem, now onstage at Shakespeare Theatre Company, is a delightful romp that seamlessly reaches across the centuries to combine the old with the new.

This tale of two rakes who have squandered their fortunes and seek rich women to marry and support their merry ways was penned in 1707. The great author and dramatist Thornton Wilder made an attempt to update the piece for 20th-century audience, but he abandoned the project in 1939. D.C.-based playwright Ken Ludwig picked up the manuscript and finished the job, a development which generated unease in some observers who have cast wary eyes at his recent, less than stellar work. But those fears have evaporated with this visually lavish and tartly comic show.

The production, rapidly paced by director Michael Kahn, features the splendid Shakespeare Theatre Company debuts of New York favorites Christopher Innvar and Veanne Cox, who anchor the amorous anarchy with razor sharp comic timing and a post-modern, ironic sensibility that welcomes the audience into the joke. The handsome and charismatic Innvar plays Jack Archer, who hopes to replenish his depleted fortune by capturing the heart -- or, at least the fortune -- of the wealthy but married Kate Sullen (Cox). But, as his plans unfold, the poor fellow falls in love with his target.

Likewise, Sullen is drawn to Archer even though she is aware that he's no straight arrow. Cox, her speech dripping in droll cadence and tone, manages to be simultaneously haughty, vulnerable, and sexually alluring, while Innvar combines a dashing persona with warmth and a charming uncertainty. Except for the too few moments when company stalwart Floyd King is onstage, this pair steal the show -- no mean feat, given that almost 20 people gambol about James Kronzer's stunning sets.

The plot remains much the same as that of the original version. Archer and his friend Tom Aimwell (Christian Conn) wander into the village of Lichfield, England to steal hearts and fortunes. Tom is immediately lovestruck by Dorinda (Julia Coffey), daughter of the rich but zany medical quack Lady Bountiful (Nancy Robinette, in a role expanded by Ludwig). Meanwhile, Jack falls for Kate, Lady Bountiful's miserably married daughter-in-law. At the same time, several thieves under the direction of the oily Gloss (Rick Foucheux) are planning to raid the Bountiful estate. Jack and Tom scheme to foil the robbery and become heroes to Dorinda and Kate.

In the new version, the women -- who also include Cherry (Colleen Delaney), an amorous daughter of the local inn's landlord -- hold their own against the men. In addition, there is some added commentary on the medical profession via Lady Bountiful, along with a few new lawyer jokes, several of them delivered by Innvar directly to the lawyer-heavy D.C. audience. (Several characters break the fourth wall to address the audience.) Farquhar's arch tone is intact, even with the modern jokiness.

Kronzer's magnificently detailed sets are placed on a double revolve that allows the scene to change within seconds from a country inn to one of three different rooms of the Bountiful estate. The audience gasps when the dark, rough-hewn country inn suddenly breaks into several pieces that whirl about in what resembles a stately minuet, only to reassemble as a colorful, sumptuously appointed drawing room. The dance of the physical structures complements that of the characters, who conspire against each other in a swirl of shifting alliances. It's heady stuff.

The work of King and Robinette deserves special mention. Robinette reaches new heights of zaniness as Lady Bountiful, who fancies herself a healer while prescribing amputation for almost every ailment. Her voice a nasal purr, her hair a fright wig, she is a pure delight. King has a smallish role, that of a French parson, complete with foppish accent. In one scene, he generates laughs just by slowly opening a door before making his entrance; we can't see him at first, but the fact that we know it's King's character pouting over a perceived slight and therefore taking his time with the door makes this comic bit screamingly funny.

Wrapped up with a happy ending, The Beaux' Stragagem sparkles with sharp wit that skewers the conventions of 300 years ago -- and a few of our own time as well.