"The Clandestine Marriage" is three hours of absotively, posilutely something or other. A merry, mixed-up 18th-century comedy from the quills of David Garrick and George Colman, it dances a daffy gavotte through the gardens of a nouveau riche English landowner where romantic signals are crossed almost as often as the footpaths.
It's a cheery windbag of a play, with lords and chambermaids and dowagers and valets all primping and groping and gassing on about love and money, and money and love. With an inexpert cast, you'd be tearing your hair out by the first mention of Lady Loosestring. Fortunately, though, Folger Theatre and director Richard Clifford have enlisted an ensemble with the chops for this sort of stylized aristocratic badinage, actors who can milk laughs from knowing sidelong glances and eccentric pronunciations of common words.
Ted van Griethuysen as Lord Ogleby, left, and Lawrence Redmond in the Folger's "Clandestine Marriage."
(Carol Pratt -- Folger Theatre)
The plot mechanics of "The Clandestine Marriage" are somewhat labored, but the cast capably gets us through the rougher patches and steers us back to enjoyment. Catherine Flye's Mrs. Heidelberg, a busybody with airs, and Ian Merrill Peakes's Sir John Melvil, a singularly bumbling roue, are particular pleasures. The production's most potent asset, however, is Ted van Griethuysen, who as Sir John's sclerotic, licentious, self-infatuated uncle, Lord Ogleby, has been handed one of his best roles in some time.
With a simpering Swiss sidekick (the terrific, falsetto-voiced Lawrence Redmond) at his dyspeptic beck and call, van Griethuysen's Ogleby is a portrait of vanity in the twilight of life. He's an old bullfrog who, gazing in the mirror, thinks he sees a handsome prince. "There's rather too much of the lily to my complexion," he declares, slathering rouge on his cheeks as if he bought the stuff by the bucket. Some of the choicest comic moments emanate from the old man's unshakable belief in his own prowess. The suggestion of a possible rival for the affections of a woman a quarter Ogleby's age sends the actor into hilarious shudders of unconcern.
Folger's production lacks some of the sumptuousness from which class-conscious English comedies of the period benefit, and in which the Shakespeare Theatre has excelled, in lavish versions of works such as the contemporaneous "Rivals." On a couple of occasions Monday night, buttons from coats designed by Kate Turner-Walker dropped noisily to the stage. Overall, however, the emphasis here is on actors rather than effects. The harpsichord in Tony Angelini's sound design is an echo of the music in a thousand other comedies-of-manners, and Tony Cisek's set is a comically two-dimensional version of an English country house, with decorative molding painted on flats and fabric.
The house belongs to Sterling (Michael Tolaydo), a self-made boor with a working-class accent (one that his sister, played by Flye, has apparently traded in for something posher). Though Tolaydo gets down Sterling's avarice, the character seems a lot shrewder than this mulish portrayal gives him credit for. Even the doltish, braying laugh the actor affects sounds artificially tacked on.
This being a satire on the extravagant hypocrisies of old wealth as well as new, the play turns on the issue of marrying for something other than love. Sterling is eager to see his daughters, the pretentious elder, Betsy (an exuberantly priggish Susan Lynskey), and the more down-to-earth Fanny (a winning Jenna Sokolowski), marry to advance the family's social position. But Lord Ogleby and his nephew Sir John throw a curveball. Promised to Betsy, Sir John falls for Fanny -- and then so does the old lord. The overarching complication, of course, is that Fanny already is married -- clandestinely -- to her real beau, Lovewell, played by Aubrey Deeker with all the pure-hearted ardor you could wish for. She is also, as they say, with child.
Garrick and Colman lack the finer touch that a more skillful plot-weaver like Richard Brinsley Sheridan would display in "The Rivals" and "The School for Scandal." "The Clandestine Marriage," for its part, goes in big for recycling; it feels, for example, as if Mrs. Heidelberg and her favorite niece, Betsy, are allowed to ruminate over the same set of grudges in one scene after another. And because the machinations of the story are so protracted, the final, revelatory scene is something of a letdown. Only a courtly gesture by Ogleby comes as anything like a surprise.
Still, as a showcase for various brands of British ham, the play is a refreshment with abundant tang. Watching van Griethuysen gear up for another rheumatic assault on the battlefield of love, you're reminded of all those lily-cheeked narcissists who sire children well into their golden years. And you're grateful to a couple of 18th-century writers for peeking so piquantly into the future.
The Clandestine Marriage, by David Garrick and George Colman. Directed by Richard Clifford. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Tony Angelini. With Shannon Parks, Lindsay Allen, Ian C. Armstrong, Chris Davenport, Jack Vernon. Approximately three hours. Through May 22 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.