She Stoops to Conquer
The McCarter Theatre serves up a soaring revival of Oliver Goldsmith's hilarious 18th-century farce.
For his comedy of manners, Goldsmith concocted such a convoluted plot about mistaken identities and concomitant foolishness that unraveling it to get to the ending where happy couples finally smooch free of care means some dry patches (or at least dry patches for less patient contemporary audiences).
The lady stooping to conquer is Kate Hardcastle (Jessica Stone), whose potential fiance, the shy-with-the-ladies Charles Marlowe (Jon Patrick Stewart) has arrived at her country home, thinking he and his more confident chum, George Hastings (Jeremy Webb), are actually stopping at an eccentric inn. That particular ruse has been dreamed up by Kate's half-brother Tony Lumpkin (Brooks Ashmanskas), a lovable ne'er-do-well always prepared to play practical jokes on his stepfather, Mr. Hardcastle (Whitehead), and particularly on his mother, Mrs. Hardcastle (Nielsen), a flibbertigibbet relentlessly trying to engage him to Constance Neville (Rebecca Brooksher), who happens to be in love with the far more dapper Hastings.
The ensemble effortlessly rises to the plot's challenge as they amble across Korins' representation of a high-ceiled mansion featuring crossed foils above a stone fireplace and a grand wooden staircase. Indeed, singling out any one of the players for special praise is pointless. Ashmanskas' Tony is a constantly gyrating figure whose entrance alone -- merely crossing the stage at a clip -- is hilarious. Whitehead, who possesses that plummy patrician voice, could patent his polish and reap millions. Walker and Webb are not only roguishly handsome as they strut and sit with aristocratic flair, but they speak their lines as if born to them.
The women fare equally well. Nielsen, known for the jittery arm movements of a woman completely at sea, is a stitch in a pink-panniered dress that makes her look like a frilly vanity table. Stone is a piquant yet knowing Kate, whether playing the young woman of the house or pretending to be a nubile barmaid. And Brooksher, a true beauty, plies Constance's feminine wiles with huge appeal.
Do any of them stoop to conquer? Pshaw! They all soar.