Kennedy Center unmasks ‘The Guardsman’


" The Guardsman" cast members, Finn Wittrock and Sarah Wayne Callies. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

“The Guardsman”? Really?

That Paleolithic bit of Broadway foolery? The farcical vehicle that once upon a time (1924, to be exact) starred the erstwhile duke and duchess of the American stage, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne? The one about the actor who tries to win back his restless actress wife’s affections by disguising himself as a dashing gallant?

THAT’S the big Kennedy Center production for the spring?

Um, yes. Or no. Well, yes and no. “The Guardsman” is the center’s major spring offering, with its official opening night set for Thursday in the Eisenhower Theater. But the play, by the early 20th-century dramatist Ferenc Molnar: moldy? Not in the estimation of playwright Richard Nelson, who has written the intriguing new adaptation that is making its debut under the direction of Gregory Mosher.

Check out the smoldering photo of its stars — Sarah Wayne Callies (late of “The Walking Dead”) and Finn Wittrock (of Broadway’s recent Tony-winning “Death of a Salesman”) — the Kennedy Center is using to promote the show: It clearly doesn’t have “fusty” in mind. “How far would you go for one honest kiss?” asks the show’s ads. Consider, too, the words of Nelson, who believes the tone of “The Guardsman” (preserved in a 1931 film version with Lunt and Fontanne) was mangled by the Hungarian Molnar’s translators and other artistic interpreters.

“Theater is a metaphor here in a wonderful way, about who one is, what love is, what passion is, and what you project onto someone else,” he observed. “It’s such a smart, sophisticated play.”

Once a year, on average, the Kennedy Center throws its resources and reputation behind a single theatrical offering that the company itself produces; the bulk of its theater slots are filled with touring musicals, although it does also produce its own children’s shows. “The Guardsman” is this year’s in-house venture, the way “Ragtime” and “Follies” recently have been. (Next spring comes a rebuilt version of the musical “Side Show,” directed by Bill Condon, and then at the start of the 2014-15 season, the center presents its first original musical in eons: “Little Dancer,” with direction by Susan Stroman and a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.)

On some levels the revival of “The Guardsman” is a more curious and radical choice, and judging from what appear to be fairly sluggish ticket sales, one over which potential playgoers, too, may be scratching their heads. “You’ve got a whole bunch of people who don’t know the play,” said Mosher.

‘Dark, sad, lonely . . . and very funny’

Or maybe there are a whole bunch of people who thought they knew the play and are about to discover that they didn’t.

“The Guardsman,” which Molnar wrote in Hungarian in 1910, occupies a prominent place in theater history primarily as a result of its association with Lunt and Fontanne. But in the intervening decades, the piece has assumed the quaintness of an antique. “An amiable comic chestnut” is how the New York Times characterized a 2010 summer revival of it at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Massachusetts. Over a lunch before rehearsals started, Mosher laughed as he described friends’ potential reactions to his decision to take on the assignment: “ ‘Gregory, I didn’t know you did dinner theater!’ ”

As Nelson explains in a prologue to his translation, such a response is not unexpected, given the way Molnar’s dark take on the pitfalls of marriage was spruced up in America as the tale of a young man who buffoonishly seeks to rekindle his wife’s ardor. What translators turned into “a bourgeois, boulevard, old-fashioned Broadway comedy,” Nelson wrote, was in fact “a very personal, even private play for Molnar,” written after a psychological breakdown that followed learning of his own wife’s unfaithfulness.

The comedy, in three acts, concerns the suspicion by the Actor, played in Washington by Wittrock, that his wife, Callies’s Actress, may no longer be in love with him. Appealing both to her vanity and passionate nature, he adopts the alter ego of the Guardsman: Count Victor de Latour-Schonichen of the Imperial Royal Arciere Guards. Appearing before her in what the script describes as “a long white coat with a horse-hair plume in his helmet,” the Actor commences a courtship that compels an audience to wonder how well any of us ever know one another.

“Part Strindberg, part Pirandello and part late Feydeau . . . ‘The Guardsman’ is a dark, sad, lonely play that is both profound and very funny,” writes Nelson, whose other recent work includes a drama about ballet choreographer George Balanchine (“Nikolai and the Others,” currently at Lincoln Center Theater) and a series of plays about the intersection of a fictional ordinary family and national politics (with two of those plays running next season at Studio Theatre).

Nelson’s acquaintance with the Molnar play began with seeing that production in the Berkshires, and his confusion over what reached his ears. “It was just a bizarre experience,” he said, in a conversation by phone. “It was 10 minutes of great writing followed by 10 minutes of awful writing.” The experience made him wonder about Molnar’s original version, so he went to the library and had a literal translation copied from microfilm.

“I thought, ‘This is a different play,’ “ Nelson recalled. He decided, with no commitment from any theater, to write his own translation, and then obtained the cooperation of Molnar’s estate. (The Jewish playwright, who fled Hungary to escape the Nazis and died in New York in 1952, was also author of “Liliom,” on which the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel” is based.)

When he was done, the script went to his old friend Mosher, who’s developed a specialty of late, in burnishing classic plays: He staged a highly praised revival on Broadway of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” with Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber, and before that directed Sally Field in the Kennedy Center’s touching incarnation of “The Glass Menagerie.” Nelson said, “I showed it to Gregory, and he flipped for it.”

To Nelson, the fascinating essence of “The Guardsman,” the question that defines whether it’s a piece of fluff or something far more resonant and mysterious, is over how the Actor’s ruse is perceived by the Actress. “The basic difference — and everything hinges on this — is if the wife knows that the husband is dressing up as the Guardsman, then it’s a one-joke show. If the wife doesn’t, and she falls in love with him, someone she thinks is someone else, then it’s a dark, dark problem.”

Mosher, who also directed the original production of David Mamet’s Pulitzer-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” and now teaches at Columbia University, liked the idea of restoring all of the dimensionality of a play, while also making the audience laugh. “It’s a very funny play,” he said, “about a very bad marriage.”

‘At a certain point, you grow or you die’

Pivotal, too, would be casting. If there wasn’t the strong scent of what drew this pair of extroverts together — and what might keep them interested even after the start of disaffection — the piece might collapse like a poorly timed souffle. Two prominent supporting roles, that of the Critic, a confidant of the couple, and Mother, an amanuensis who serves as a surrogate mom of sorts to the Actress, also require vivid performances.

Producers at the Kennedy Center had long wanted Mosher back and when he proposed “The Guardsman,” he said, “I just want to cast the best actors.” For the Critic, he chose Shuler Hensley, an actor with astonishing range: Though D.C. audiences may recall him as the Monster executing a daffy soft-shoe shuffle to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in “Young Frankenstein,” he also won plaudits recently for his transformation into the morbidly obese recluse of Samuel Hunter’s “The Whale.” As Mother, he cast a beloved off- and off-off-Broadway fixture, Julie Halston.

Mosher selected Wittrock on the recommendation of Mike Nichols, who directed him as Happy, Willy Loman’s younger son, on Broadway. And he wanted Callies, he said, the moment he heard her audition.

The actress, who played Lori Grimes for three seasons on the horror series “The Walking Dead,” was in, of all places, a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq, doing volunteer work for the International Rescue Committee, when her agents beckoned. “I got back to the hotel room, and there are two e-mails on my laptop,” she recalled by phone. “One is the script of ‘The Guardsman,’ and the other is about a lead in a television series.”

“On the way back to the States, there was a lot of pressure to take the TV job. It was very high-profile,” she added. “I was kind of thinking I might do it. And then I read the play and it was the play that convinced me to do it. . . .It’s the one no one is going to see, but I will come out of this a better actor. Greg Mosher is the kind of director who makes you a better actor. And at a certain point, you grow or you die.”

Wittrock, the Romeo in the all-male “Romeo and Juliet” that Shakespeare Theatre Company produced in 2008, had a different reaction to the job, especially in the illusion the Actor is required to conjure. “I thought, ‘How the heck am I going to pull this off?’ ” he said. “How to differentiate them to a degree, but also make them both believable.”

Belief is indeed a lethal weapon in “The Guardsman.” “These two people are playing a very deadly game — and are loving it,” Callies said. “I think they’re two people who’d rather be dead than bored.”

“When the Guardsman is into it, he feels great,” said Wittrock. “She’s all he wants out of life, but it’s also killing him right under the surface. And there’s also this element from her of seeing what you want to see, that disguise is as much with the mind as it is in the eyes.”

So what does Molnar’s Actress know, and when does she know it? “Greg and Richard have a very strong opinion,” Callies said.

She’s developed one, too. What that opinion is, she’s not about to tell.

The Guardsman

by Ferenc Molnar, translated by Richard Nelson. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Through June 23 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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