The Kingfisher -- At the National through March 15.
The good intention behind all those weak revivals of minor drawing-room comedies during the last few seasons can be divined from "The Kingfisher," by William Douglas Home, a comedy in a fresh, outdoor drawing room that succeeds where musty indoor revivals have failed.
People had simply missed seeing cheerful, actable -- playable -- plays. An entertaining evening at the theater used to be something quite different from either an important evening at the theater or an entertaining evening at the movies, both of which have been available all along.
But the funny, talky play that lent itself to spirited acting seemed to have been lost. Attempts to reach back and redo the average old hit rarely worked. bOld action comedy can be recreated; and fine verbal comedy, such as Sheridan or Wilde or Coward, easily transcends its original frame of reference and manners. But plays whose sparkle came from the spirit of their times, rather than from timeless silliness or timeless wit, lose their fizz.
It would probably be a big mistake to revive "The Kingfisher" in 20 years, and have the next generation shake heads over how simple people must have been to think it clever. But right now, it is clever -- it is, exactly, an entertaining evening of theater.
It plays to our naive rediscovery that people who are now old led lives as complicated and sexy as anyone's today, and the perhaps even more naive rediscovery that they didn't stop doing so with age. At a time when sex has not been considered to be so relentlessly connected to current youth, it probably wouldn't go over.
There's even a naive thrill in seeing how marvelous the actors are in the sixth decades of their careers. Claudette Colbert, with one round cheek and one round eye next to each ear, and Rex Harrison, with perhaps a few more triangular creases framing his triangular eyes, play a pair of lovers taking up a 50-year-old romance where they left it, both still enthusiastic about their pleasure-seeking and both still wary about guarding their comforts and protecting their personal welfare.
The third actor, George Rose, is not quite old enough or famous enough to inspire awe by being as good as ever, but his contribution as a bossy butler is a large part of the evening's delight.He does a drunken walk, for example, that is specifically port-inspired, as opposed, say, to a drunken walk resulting from drinking whiskey.
Along with the titillation of elderly lust, this sort of thing makes a very entertaining evening. It hardly matters for now that the symbolism of the kingfisher, a bird who been reproducing and burrowing about near the play's outdoor drawing room all those 50 years, doesn't pan out as meaning anything much.