When you gaze at the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with, what do you really see? Or more to the point, as the Kennedy Center’s beguiling “The Guardsman” asks: What don’t you see?
The questions spring to mind as events unfold in this game of sexual gotcha, courtesy of the early 20th-century Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, and with fresh seasoning applied by director Gregory Mosher and translator Richard Nelson. The enchantment is amplified by a superb cast led by Finn Wittrock, Shuler Hensley, Julie Halston and, most especially, Sarah Wayne Callies as a Budapest stage star who may or may not be aware that the mustachioed count putting the moves on her is her husband in disguise.
The plot mechanics of “The Guardsman” — which ran on Broadway back in 1924, starring the reigning theater couple of the time, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne — dance on the edge of triteness. But Nelson, an accomplished dramatist himself, rightly saw that the work’s proto-sitcom complications concealed a sadder, shrewder play, one concerning an illusion as much as a charade.
And who better to explore the chimera of eternal bliss than a pair of married actors? This new “Guardsman,” which officially opened Thursday night in the Eisenhower Theater, does not blot out all the foolishness in the story: An audience still laughs at the first sight of Wittrock, entering in the guise of the hirsute count (and while we’re talking, might something be done to calm that riotous wig?). This does, however, find a more brittle context for what otherwise might have come across as rampant fluff.
That context is a marriage that has moved on from the passionate phase but is stalled short of the comfortable one. Hanging over this husband and wife is a sense of loneliness, and the suspicion that no one will ever make them truly happy.
Much of the production’s interest is attributable to the statuesque Callies, who, like a star of yore, presides over the evening with an almost disconcerting confidence. Draped in a series of drop-dead evening and dressing gowns by designer Jane Greenwood, she also wears a mask of serenity tinged with restlessness. What person would not be tormented by a spouse so hard to read? Her effect is much what one would expect of the skilled pretender she portrays, a woman called upon here to maintain her composure as a uniformed count professes his undying love — and Wittrock’s Actor tests the durability of her fidelity.
With the design expertise, too, of John Lee Beatty and his luxe sets adorned by Tiffany glass and wine-colored walls, the production is easily the most satisfying drama to reach the Kennedy Center since Cate Blanchett visited two summers ago in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya.” This project, in fact, feels like the reconsideration of a classic that one more commonly associates with an institution like London’s National Theatre. As such, the center’s decision to produce it must be regarded as a coup both unlikely and most encouraging.
The straightforward story of “The Guardsman” occurs over two days in the early 1900s, when the Actor, convinced that his wife is tiring of him, leaves for an acting job out of town and returns as the dashing nobleman of the title. Although we’re kept merrily guessing over whether the Actress recognizes the guardsman, the meatier, more elusive mystery is the secret that the Actress protects, about whether she really does love him.
Our own intensifying curiosity is reflected marvelously in two characters who hover closest to the Actor and Actress, and who have a stake in the marriage falling apart. Hensley’s Critic, a confidant to the couple, has been hopelessly in love with the Actress for years. And the Actress’s backstage helper, a woman she calls “Mother,” played by Halston, resents the Actor for consigning her to secondary status in the Actress’s affections.
A pair of sliding black doors upstage in the couple’s flat is employed by Mosher to highly entertaining effect. Again and again, the Critic and Mother and an anxious maid played by Annie Funke make entrances with varying degrees of dread on their faces. Hensley’s deadpan performance is another of this gifted actor’s indispensable turns, and Halston terrifically handles a climactic moment of ambiguous revelation.
Wittrock imbues the Actor with the requisite virile energy, and without turning the guardsman into a vain Middle European buffoon. Like Callies’s Actress, the performance feels aptly modern, and yet suited for the period. Wanting to give his alter ego a divergent personality, Wittrock deepens his voice and puts on a Hungarian accent. That works well, but his “street” voice for the Actor could stand a bit more projection, especially in the early going, when audiences’ ears are still adjusting.
You could feel a change come over the spectators in the Eisenhower as they realized that while the Actor’s gambit is the play’s funniest element, it’s not what makes the evening tick. Trying to understand what the Actress’s heart is telling her — and telling everyone else — is more engrossing, and more fun. I want to believe that I got what’s going on in her head. But I’d no sooner disclose what I think than she would.
by Ferenc Molnár, translated by Richard Nelson. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; hair and wigs, Tom Watson; sound, Scott Lehrer. With John Ahlin and Naomi Jacobson. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through June 23 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.