Noted writer and director Theresa Rebeck needed only to change the setting in William Congreve's The Way of the World from 18th-century London to the 21st-century summer enclave of the Hamptons to create a piquant comedy, currently receiving a magnificent Washington premiere at the Folger Theatre.
The original Way of the World, which premiered in London in 1700, was a byzantine story of personal affairs set in an environment where love was of secondary importance to the wealth and status associated with marriage. But freedom from marriage was also a state devoutly to be wished, as it allowed an unmarried woman or man as many amours as she or he could handle. Rebeck's sly update of Congreve's play settles eight unmarried characters in the Hamptons and lets them try to decide how to handle one another.
Right from the start, it's obvious that being a "successful" young man in the Hamptons is equivalent to sleeping with as many women as possible. Rebeck's main male character, Henry, seduces the main female character, Mae, the only character with a working moral compass. Mae develops feelings for Henry until she learns that he has also bedded her aunt, Rene. The other men — Charles, Lyle, and Reg — envy Henry's sexual prowess and assume that he romanced both niece and aunt in order to access their extraordinary fortunes.
This Way of the World tells two stories. One is Mae's, which consists of her bemoaning her weakness for Henry and trying to get her aunt to accompany her to Haiti to build a water plant. The other story involves all the other characters — four men, Rene, and Mae's prime frenemy, Katrina — who continuously meet and try to charm one another.
Eliza Huberth is delightful as Mae, completely credible as she defies the snobby idle rich who object to her wearing Birkenstocks to an art opening. Kristine Nielsen plays Rene brilliantly as a stock comic figure: the aging woman who fears getting older and fatter. Yet for all her semi-predictable antics, Nielsen's Rene contains many grains of truth in her attitudes toward love, sex, youth, and money.
Luigi Sottile makes a very suave Henry, although after seeing his early libidinous behavior, his sudden reformation at the end calls for more than a willing suspension of disbelief. Brandon Espinoza plays Charles as uppity and malevolent, with all the right logos on his clothes but no redeeming social value.
Daniel Morgan Shelley shines as Lyle, who has a vague notion of the mess he is in. Erica Dorfler is excellent as the flouncy, sexy Katrina. Elan Zafir defines obnoxiousness as Reg. Ashley Austin Morris is refreshing as the ditzy Waitress, who is thrilled by everything Hamptons.
Rebeck's loose adaptation is spot-on in its venomous attacks on the one-percenters who are represented here. Aunt Rene angrily objects to all the criticism people wage at the wealthy, pointing out that the rich pay their share by hiring people. Throughout the play, there is also a clear sense of America in early January 2018. At one point, Aunt Rene refers to Haiti as "sh, sh, sh, sh, shambles." As director, Rebeck keeps her characters spinning around each other, periodically colliding at Rene's mansion, a gallery, and several coffee houses.
Alexander Dodge's sets incorporate all those places. Dodge creates a grid of small white display boxes to represent Rene's bedroom. In those boxes are diamond-encrusted evening bags, dress shoes, expensive hats, and other results of Rene's outrageous shopping sprees. Costume designer Linda Cho creates perfectly high-end and visually stunning but impractical clothes for the women, including dresses that are short in front, long in back.
There are two truly remarkable things about The Way of the World. The first is that Rebeck can keep the comedy hot while most of the sexual endeavors are so unfeeling, so cold. The second is that although 95 percent of the play goes on in an immoral or amoral universe, where few people talk about love, when Rebeck deems it so, suddenly Mae and Henry are in a different realm, where nothing is important but love.