The let’s-put-on-a-show trope gets an edgy, psychologically sophisticated twist in Jordan Harrison’s comedy “Act a Lady,” now on view in a plush, spirited production from the Hub Theatre.
With word-drunk lines and speeches, breezy historical references, and a couple of non-naturalistic scenes that Freud and Dostoevsky might appreciate, this tale of Prohibition-era cross-dressing won’t top anyone’s list of accessible fluff. But adventurous theatergoers willing to concentrate will admire Harrison’s daring, insight and idiosyncratic humor. And Matthew R. Wilson’s production features some performances that are as funny as they are intense.
Set in the late 1920s, “Act a Lady” revolves around a group of men who decide to stage a theatrical fundraiser in the small Midwestern town of Wattleburg. Dreaming big, the guys —mild-mannered entrepreneur Miles (Matthew Pauli), the rough-diamond tanner True (David Zimmerman), and the gentle photographer Casper (Cyle Durkee)— hire the out-of-town auteur-director Zina (Nora Achrati) for the project. When Zina casts the men in a saga about female aristocrats during the French Revolution, the opportunity to sashay around in 18th-century gowns awakens a feminine shadow self in each performer. Before too long, everyone involved with the fundraiser has realized that identity is far more complex, and perhaps more fulfilling, than society sometimes assumes.
In another context, this epiphany could seem trite, but Harrison has infused his personalities with so much quirkiness — verging on weirdness — that the narrative gains a kind of persuasive gravity. Miles isn’t just a businessman who realizes he enjoys dressing up like Marie Antoinette; he’s also the husband of Dorothy (Toni Rae Salmi), an accordion-player given to composing highly peculiar original songs — including one about the devil. Dorothy initially doesn’t much care for Zina’s production, in which Miles plays, among other roles, a ghost who goes around moaning “Raw silk snood!”
Wilson’s performers bring conviction and a suitably broad comic style to these poignantly oddball characters. Achrati, in particular, is enjoyably imperious as the hard-drinking, britches-wearing Zina; and Salmi brings a nice sad-eyed pragmatism to Dorothy. Jenna Sokolowski is adorably girlish as the makeup artist Lorna, who has hobnobbed in Hollywood with the likes of Mary Pickford, but now finds herself attracted to working-class True.
Pauli, Zimmerman and Durkee toggle ably between their relatively quiet, ambivalent and straight-laced Wattleburg characters and the melodramatic courtiers who people Zina’s production. The latter display a heightened, swooning, swanning physicality — and who wouldn’t, in Maria Vetsch’s handsome Louis XVI-era costumes and wigs? (Klyph Stanford designed the set, with its footlights, red stage curtain and other meta-theatrical features.)
But Harrison’s stylized language sometimes rivals the gowns for exuberance. That’s particularly the case when the play-within-a-play is camping it up (“Your eyes, like two black pearls harvested from the heftiest clams by the quickest-fingered divers of the Orient,” a Vicomte — played by Pauli — rhapsodizes in a love scene spoof). But the Wattleburg residents can talk vernacular poetry too. “You’re telling me lady-clothes, dancing, and gambling all baked in one big clove-foot casserole,” Dorothy gripes to her husband, when he initially tells her about Zina’s risky production.
“How’m I supposed to keep my feet on the ground when my words are knocking around on high heels?” Miles wonders at one point, after his characters’ lines have etched themselves deep into his psyche. Even as Harrison’s script shows off its own fancy footwork, this production keeps itself admirably grounded.
“Act a Lady,” by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Matthew R. Wilson; lighting design, Andrew Cissna; sound, Neil McFadden; props, Suzanne Maloney; accordion coach and music arranger, Amy Baska; technical director, Jameson Shroyer; composer Eli Pafumi. About 2 hours. Through August 4 at The John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, 9431 Silver King Court, Fairfax. Visit www.thehubtheatre.org or call 800-494-8497.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.