THE BLOG
10/16/2016 07:22 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2017

First Nighter: The Actors Company Theatre "She Stoops to Conquer" Revival Remains on its Haunches

Normally, a reviewer wouldn't do what's about to be done here. But I can't think of another way of saying what needs to be said about The Actors Company Theatre She Stoops to Conquer revival, the one currently not catching sufficient fire at the Clurman.

What requires mentioning, in my estimation, is that Nicholas Martin helmed an uproarious version of Oliver Goldsmith's classic 1773 comedy at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in 2009. Although Martin wasn't able to enliven some of the moments that don't appear to have appeal for contemporary audiences, those patches were small in number. The much larger portion of the production rollicked as the play must have rollicked for its first delighted audiences--the rampant rollicking also due to a terrific cast of zanies and a sumptuous set and costume design.

I only bring this up now to say if Martin's relatively recent Goldsmith outing wasn't still tickling my memory, I might have sat through adapter-director Scott Alan Evans's take while becoming increasingly convinced that whatever teased funny bones in the late-ish 18th century has sadly lost the power to provide the same service for 2016 theatergoers.

Not for lack of Davis's trying, however. He's come up with all sorts of ideas to spark the occasion. He has cast members stroll through the audience before the play proper kicks in. He has them huddle stage center and then speak in unison about various house amenities, such as the purchase of TACT mugs. He offers a character-introing promenade and arms the ensemble with fun instruments. He includes a brief audience singalong and eventually incorporates a spectator in the action as a letter carrier. He goes for heightened team spirit by having the actors work with each other moving furniture from scene to scene.

Brett Banakis designed the spare set, which features a raised playing area covering, say, two-thirds of the stage. On the right and left sides, Davis has placed chairs the cast members occupy when not involved in scenes, a directorial notion hardly new these last however many years. It could be said that actors watching their colleagues emote has its attractions. They constantly and thoroughly make a show of enjoying what they're seeing when patrons don't look to be having the same jolly good time. The drawback is that the second each actor steps--or hastens--from the paying area to plop down, he or she ceases being the character he or she has taken on and assumes the role of appreciative onlooker. Somehow this mitigates against comic tension.

(Has anyone ever done a survey of actors' attitudes towards this practice of their having to observe the entire enterprise night after night, matinee after matinee? Does Actors Equity demand added pay?)

About She Stoops to Conquer and just to fill in readers unaware of the plot: Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (John Rothman, Cynthia Darlow) live in a commodious mansion with daughter Kate (Mairin Lee), ward Constance Neville (Justine Salata) and Mrs. Hardcastle's son-by-first-husband Tony Lumpkin (Richard Thieriot). At a local pub, Tony, an incorrigible cut-up, leads Kate's new suitor, Charles Marlow (Jeremy Beck), and Constance's suitor, George Hastings (Tony Roach), to believe that when they arrive at the Hardcastle manse, they are really reaching a country inn.

This leads to mistaken-identity-plus complications compounded by Kate's taking an instant shine to Charles, but Charles's timidity cramping his swaining style. As a result, Kate stoops to conquer as a lowly maid, a perky below-stairs figure. Charles is confident enough around this staff member to woo her heartily. Goldsmith's folderol goes on until it doesn't, and everything ends happily.

Yes, She Stoop to Conquer deals in romantic silliness that Goldsmith gives the sort of oomph that requires inspired directing and playing to realize its full potential. That's exactly what fails to occur here. Though the actors strive mightily, that may be the problem: too much effortful thesping. But it's not their fault. Their unrewarding toil is a consequence of Evans's direction--nor do Tracy Christensen's uninspired costumes add much.

There is one notable exception to the at-best-adequate performing. Beck, a TACT member, always knows how to negotiate these kinds of scripts. He's a master of the effortless. Bully for him.