There could not be a better antidote to the overload of Anglophilia this city recently went through than Bertram Wooster, the splay-footed, monocled, upper-class twit given to us through the joint efforts of the late P.G. Wodehouse and the young actor Edward Duke. Indeed, the characters of "Jeeves takes Charge" -- all of them played by Duke -- could have everyone revisiting the "Treasure Houses of Britain" exhibit and seeing it in a different light. Can it be an accident that Wooster resembles, ever so slightly, Prince Charles?
All those who take care to pronounce the 't' in valet should be marched down to Ford's Theatre immediately to see the return engagement of this supremely delightful entertainment. Duke is a performer of infinite talent -- including superbly awful tap dancing -- and his concoction is a welcome glass of champagne in a season that has offered up a lot of dark ale.
It is a one-man, eight-person show, and that's not counting some offstage voices. Duke shifts from the goofy Wooster to his sober valet Jeeves to a 12-year-old schoolgirl with startling deftness, in some instances making a costume change before one even has a chance to shift in one's seat. These changes are close to legerdemain -- a switch from white tie and tails to a three-piece gray suit with boutonniere in less than 10 seconds is one feat. The sets, too, are magic, with a bed turning into a fully laid table and a couch into a car before there is even a chance to notice it happening.
Duke has been touring this show since 1980, including his 1984 visit here, but seems not the least bit dulled by the experience. At the very least one would think his throat would be raw from the awful braying laugh that poor Bertie affects, a laugh that could shatter crystal or send the help fleeing for the servants' hall.
Wooster, according to the biography provided in the program (shall we spell it programme for this occasion?), was born at the age of 24 in 1917. He is a man about town who attended Oxford, "mostly Magdalen" (pronounced "maudlin," of course), "but sometimes apparently Christ Church." (Magdalen is second in social cachet to Christ Church.) He has all the characteristics of the bon vivant of his time and station: concave posture, slightly bucked teeth, a tendency to abbreviate words -- as in "more than flesh and B can stand," and total dependency on his "man."
That, of course, would be Jeeves, who has impeccable taste and imposes it, knows the cure for his gentleman's hangover and manages to be somehow both discreet and meddling. He doesn't walk into a room, Wooster says, he "shimmers," seeming to have no feet at all. To cure Wooster of a mild attack of yearning for domesticity, Jeeves arranges for him to visit a girls' school and be invited to make a speech to the students, a performance that throws him into an utter paroxysm of incompetence. His technique improves by the second act, however, when at the behest of one of his numerous aunts he performs at a village fete, not merely speaking but singing and dancing as well.
One character that appears on the scene is the unfortunate Gussie, a weedy type with a single long eyebrow, who is happier talking to insects than people. He, too, must face the public torment of handing out prizes at a school (the English are very fond of these public events and are constantly arranging public "talks"). His solution, with Wooster and Jeeves' help, is to get totally blotto, and the hilarious result is something like a human Muppet whose operator stayed too long in the bar.
A man in the row behind me remarked to his companion that the simple "Jeeves" is a pithier satire of the British upper class than Arena's "Restoration" with all its elaborate bluster. That may be -- but it's also a lot of ripping good fun.
"Jeeves Takes Charge," by P.G. Wodehouse, conceived and adapted by Edward Duke, directed by Gillian Lynne, designed by Carl Toms, lighting by Peter Hanson, costumes by Una-Mary Parker, choreography by Susan Holderness. With Edward Duke. At Ford's Theatre through Feb. 23.