The Guardsman

A top-notch cast and John Rando’s vigorous direction can’t overcome the flimsiness of Ferenc Molnar’s farce.

Michel Gill and Jayne Atkinson in The Guardsman
(© Sarah Moazeni)
Michel Gill and Jayne Atkinson in The Guardsman
(© Sarah Moazeni)

How many great actors does it take to truly put over Ferenc Molnár’s
The Guardsman? We may never know, because the highly skilled company doing the heavy lifting under John Rando’s vigorous direction at the Berkshire Theatre Festival fails to achieve liftoff.

The fault lies with this hopelessly dated vehicle: so flimsy is the plot of this farce, it would seem to suggest that our forebears were either borderline imbecilic or awfully easy to amuse. Here, “The Actor” (Michel Gill, who excels at the tics of a vain neurotic) is convinced that, after six months of marriage, “The Actress” (Jayne Atkinson, Gill’s real-life spouse) has tired of him and longs for a new lover. Her presenting symptom is a penchant for playing Chopin.

The staging opens cleverly with a frieze catching them fractiously mid-squabble, surrounded by their intimates: the critic Dr. Bernhard (Richard Easton); the Actress’s longtime companion, a semi-servant whom she fondly calls “Mama” (Mary Louise Wilson); and the maid Liesel (Tara Franklin). The Actor then soon hits upon a plan to test his wife’s love: he’ll dress up as an officer of the Russian Imperial Guard and do his utmost to seduce her.

By 1910, when this play was first produced in Hungary, its central conceit had already been around the block a few times. Whereas Shakespeare employed the Russian ruse merely as a passing interlude in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Molnár stretches the unbelievable gimmick to a grueling three acts.

How could the wife not know her own spouse even with spirit gum agleam on his fake beard and ruddy stage makeup? Moreover, how high are the stakes here, really, given that the couple are two such patent professional phonies? In any case, we’re never given much cause to worry about the outcome.

Atkinson wafts and beams like Meryl Streep in bemused mode, while retaining just enough caginess to signal she’s on to the game. Meanwhile, Easton and Wilson are splendid in their respective roles: he’s avuncular and conspiratorial (with a trace of sublimated lust), while she’s peppery and irrepressibly vulgar.

One suspects that the sole purpose of mounting a play like The Guardsman is to provide light entertainment; but here, it’s like watching a convocation of top chefs trying to whip up a soufflé out of cement mix.