Through June 23
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
For more than 50 years, legendary husband/wife acting team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne charmed audiences with their onstage sophistication and offstage happy marriage. But little did fans know that the English-speaking world’s most famous theatrical couple was a union sprung more from ambition than passion. Theirs was one of the all-time, great lavender cover-ups.
Lunt and Fontanne began their post-nuptial collaboration on Broadway in 1924 with a hit production of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s 1910 play, “The Guardsman.” It’s the story of an actor who disguises himself as the Emperor’s dashing guardsman to test the fidelity of his actress wife. The ’24 adaptation was light and breezy, well suited to the stars’ comedic style.
Now playwright Richard Nelson’s new and more discerning translation of Molnár’s original darker version is playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Nelson’s script successfully blends the humor and pathos of its source, balancing the best of farce and drama. There’s the funniness of the handsome Actor (Finn Wittrock) hiding behind a Van Dyke beard, wild wig and nonspecific Mitteleuropa accent as he woos his own wife. But there’s also the frustration felt by the Actress (Sarah Wayne Callies) at being caught in a disappointing marriage, and the Actor’s insane jealousy that even extends to the noble guardsman he’s invented.
Set in early 20th century Budapest, the play is deceptively simple. Not long married, the young couple is already quarreling. Prior to marriage, she had a string of six-month-long affairs prompting the Actor to fear that their once passionate relationship has reached its expiration date. His solution is to tempt her with a new man of his own creation. Whether or not she goes for the forbidden fruit in counterfeit officer’s duds, the Actor reasons, he’ll know exactly where he stands.
Callies (best known as ill-fated Lori Grimes from TV’s “The Walking Dead”) is perfectly cast as the inscrutable thespian beauty and Wittrock is equally effective as her hot-blooded, tortured mate.
Witnessing the charade are the Actress’ longtime companion Mother played by the terrific Julie Halston who cut her acting teeth in downtown Manhattan performing in gay playwright Charles Busch’s campy classics. Curmudgeonly Mother despises her employer’s husband almost as much as her recent demotion to glorified housekeeper. Also on hand is the Critic (the wonderfully low key Shuler Hensley), the couple’s trusted friend who carries a long unreciprocated torch for the Actress.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Annie Funke as the green chamber maid, John Ahlin’s stage-struck bill collector and local favorite Naomi Jacobson as a tip-hungry opera usher.
Skillfully staged by Broadway’s Gregory Mosher, the action unfolds lucidly in just two days. The Actor claims he’s leaving town for work, but instead is using his makeup and acting skills right at home where he’ll pay a visit to wife at their home and later meet her at the opera. Even if farce isn’t your cup, it’s done incredibly well here.
And it’s a gorgeously designed production. John Beatty has created surroundings befitting a rich, young golden couple — their apartment is an Ottoman-influenced art nouveau bijou with strewn pillows, dark red walls, a secret door, low seating and hanging lamps. He’s also created a sumptuous opera box. Jane Greenwood has supplied the tall and slender Callies with a wardrobe of chic dressing gowns and a scene-stealing silvery number for the Actress’ evening out.
Could she seriously be fooled by a wig and phony accent? Or does she know it’s her husband all along? He’ll never know, nor shall we. But that’s all part of the fun and it makes for good post-show chatter.