"She Stoops to Conquer," Oliver Goldsmith's sendup of high society, might be dated by a couple of centuries, but it ain't dead yet. The Folger's production fairly bubbles with vitality under the expansive influence of Davey Marlin-Jones.
A hyperkinetic theater reviewer on Channel 9, Marlin-Jones, as a director, favors frenzy on stage. Though the play starts sluggishly, as if waking up with a hangover, it eventually hits a gallop and turns rowdy with delight.
It's a lampoon of the English caste system, circa 1773, and uses romance, mistaken identity and silliness to make its point. The doings center on a rich young gentleman named Marlow: a self-assured Lothario when wooing women of lower classes, but excruciatingly shy with ladies from the social summit.
The action begins as Marlow -- the reluctant suitor to Miss Kate Hardcastle -- arrives at her father's country manor. Mistaking the old squire for a mere innkeeper, Marlow treats him and his wife with appropriate disdain. The squire's daughter, meanwhile, leaves him tongue-tied and cold. She turns Marlow's social tic to her own advantage, though -- "stooping" (as Goldsmith has it) to win his attention and love.
Thomas Schall's portrayal of Marlow is rich, detailed and funny -- and entirely believable in the context of the play.The condescending little smile, the exasperation mixed with noblesse oblige at supposed underlings, the skittish "modesty" with Kate and presumptuous ardor with Kate in disguise, and the abject mortification, once the social confusion has been sorted out, are all just right.
Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, alas, is not so strong in playing Kate, whose character is supposed to work as counterpoint to Marlow's. On the way from lady to barmaid and back, she mixes and mangles dialects -- and there's no sense that she's shifting gears to fit the shifting situation.
The rest of the actors, though, are generally solid, starting with the Folger's artistic producer, John Neville-Andrews, who brings a gruff warmth to the role of Mr. Hardcastle, playing him as a self-made man who might reasonably be mistaken for an innkeeper.
Mikel Lambert, in exaggerated makeup as Hardcastle's conniving, strong-willed wife, mugs, feints and faints like Lucille Ball -- and gets as many laughs. James Beard, as her spoiled son from a previous marriage, Tony Lumpkin, seems to have taken his comic cue from Benny Hill: His business is broadly amusing at first, but in the end the plump Beard is too much. Lumpkin seems such a drooling half-wit that he couldn't have the smarts that the script suggests.
Like other Folger productions, this one is visually impressive. Lewis Folden's well-appointed country manor (its slanting floor evoking a funhouse) and Bary Allen Odom's flamboyant costumes give a nice accent to the comedy. The recorded music of Tony Zito is more distracting than imaginative, but once the play gets going, it does no particular harm.
SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER -- At the Folger Theater through February 27.