If, like the poet, you believe the most wasted of all days is one without laughter, count on the Classic Theatre’s production of She Stoops to Conquer to help you get your giggle on. This production of Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th-century “laughing comedy” is the best argument I’ve seen to date against putting the oldies in a museum.
Never mind that the title, swiped from Dryden, sounds like a very literate euphemism for a blow job. Conquer, set in a world of manners, is a romping extended practical joke which explores gender and class dynamics, the consistency of human character, and above all, the crazy games of love.
So it begins: Young Kate Hardcastle is set up with a suitor — the offspring of one of dear old daddy’s best friends. The prospective lover, Marlow, is said to be a respectful and modest creature. On their tempestuous journey to meet Kate, Marlow and his friend, Mr. Hastings, come to rest at the Hardcastle home, believing it to be an inn along the way — thanks to Kate’s trickster sibling, Tony. Not so much humble as asshole, at least in the presence of menfolk and the lower class, cheeky Marlow amusingly morphs into a trembling, frozen toddler in the presence of a well-bred woman.
Though initially disappointed by the prospect of a bashful beau, Kate finds something likeable about Marlow upon their first interview, despite his inability to look her in the face or, indeed, complete a sentence. Mr. Hardcastle, on the other hand, has had an entirely different experience with the boy, who has treated him with impudence — this play’s favorite word — because Marlow mistakenly believes him to be a mere innkeeper.
In order to persuade her father that Marlow is in fact a decent human being, Kate masquerades as a lowly barmaid with whom the suitor is able to comfortably converse, and eventually entreats Mr. Hardcastle to spy on the couple’s tender moments of cooing and wooing. Meanwhile, Kate’s girlfriend Miss Neville, a sweet if materialistic girl who is betrothed to the loathsome if hilarious Tony, conspires to run away with her real amour, Hastings.
Any fool can guess how this play will end, but as the tired expression goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination. As the program notes suggest, the actors’ business and gestures are what make this a “laughing comedy” — though the play has no dearth of witty dialogue. Director and set designer Allan S. Ross’s pared-down staging tells us that performances, not props, were utmost in his mind. So it should be — actors need not compete with overblown period sets for the audience’s attention. The only large and permanent fixture on the set is a screen — unnecessarily stenciled with the name of the play, in case we forget — from behind which the occasional letter, book, or tree branch is absurdly, wonderfully, passed to a performer.
The performers are all excellent, too, so bear with me as I praise them. Brandon Paul Sasnett and Jimmy Moore, as Marlow and Hastings, respectively, have developed a charming dependency between their characters. During his first meeting with Kate, Sasnett seeks approving glances from Moore, who physically helps him clasp the hand of the woman whose gaze he cannot bear to meet. Courtney Coston as Miss Neville cutely deadpans her asides to the audience, sometimes at breakneck speed, and Chelsea Dyan Fry — Kate — oozes benevolence as both herself and her barmaid alter ego.
The show is stolen, however, by Rick Sanchez as Tony, whose impish exuberance and elastic facial gestures are cause for the play’s most cackle-inducing moments. I dare you not to howl as he attempts to sound out the word “esquire.” Terri Peña Ross, as Mrs. Hardcastle, a theatrical matchmaking mum, and Rick Lukens — playing a simple-minded servant as well as Marlow’s father — are very nearly as magnificent with less to go on.
The cast’s performances are only more lovely to behold in Jodi Karjala’s exquisite, period-perfect, textile-pornalicious costumes: swinging gold and brown jacquard coats for the men; plump, petit-four-toned gowns for the women. You may come to She Stoops to Conquer for relatively cheap laughs, but trust me, you won’t be slumming it. •