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!’ ”