"A lackey's wit/turns the whole of Naples upside down," a wily servant named Tristan exults at one point in "The Dog in the Manger," Lope de Vega's 17th-century comedy about love and rank. Tristan is elated at his own ingenuity, and why wouldn't he be? After devising a socially subversive fix for his boss's romantic quandary, he's about to bamboozle some dimwitted aristocrats out of a windfall.
If the moment is delectable for Tristan, Louis E. Davis's portrait of him makes it satisfying for the audience, too. Davis's Tristan, exuding laid-back cockiness and smarts, seems right at home in this spry but uneven production directed by Hannah Todd and Bridget Grace Sheaff for the classics-focused troupe We Happy Few.
Not all the acting in the show is as reliable, although the lead turns have their strengths: Raven Bonniwell is poised and imperious, if insufficiently modulated, as Diana, a haughty countess who's chagrined to find herself in love with her lower-born secretary. And Kiernan McGowan confidently channels that secretary, Teodoro, who's prepared to dump his fiancee, Marcela (Natalie Cutcher), if the countess works up the courage to trade snobbishness for love.
Bonniwell's and McGowan's performances have a distilled quality that's not a good match for Davis's relaxed naturalism or Cutcher's gangly comedy. Indeed, in general, the directors have failed to adequately reconcile the cast's hodgepodge of acting modes, which include some antic and slapstick choices, not to mention rampant mugging by Tori Boutin as a lady-in-waiting and foppish count.
Ruthlessly whittled to a mere 90 minutes, this accessible "Dog in the Manger" whizzes along on a stage that's bare except for a few simple scenic pieces suggesting Spanish Golden Age architecture. Moyenda Kulemeka's yesteryear-evoking costumes are more exuberant, with glamorous gowns for Diana.
With Diana constituting the tale's highest-status character, "The Dog in the Manger" reflects on male-female power dynamics, as well as social inequality. A portion of that seriousness comes through here, despite the prevailing mood of breezy romp.
The Dog in the Manger by Lope de Vega, translated by David Johnston. Directed by Hannah Todd and Bridget Grace Sheaff; scenic design, Jimmy Stubbs; lighting, Jason Aufdem-Brinke; props, Sarah Kamins; sound, Robert Pike; fight director, Andrew Keller. With Debora Crabbe and Charlie Retzlaff. 90 minutes. Tickets $15. Through Dec. 2 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE. Visit wehappyfewdc.com.