The cleverest moment of playwright-director Theresa Rebeck's updating of "The Way of the World," a 318-year-old Restoration comedy, is a joke that's barely one week old. "We can't go to Haiti," declares the rich Hamptons aunt to her even wealthier Hamptons niece. "You know, that country is just a sh-sh-sh-shambles!"
So much for a classical theater not keeping pace with John Oliver. That the line is delivered from the stage of the Folger Theatre by no less accomplished a comic actress than Kristine Nielsen only adds to the gag's giddiness. With a fey drollness and eyes that dance around their sockets like the numbered balls in a bingo cage, Nielsen is a zany contemporary stand-in for William Congreve's Lady Wishfort (as in "wish for it"), eternally randy doyenne of the 1 percenters.
Here, though, the character's name is Rene, and like so much else in this unripe transplanting of "The Way of the World" to Long Island's over-pampered East End, the material she's given doesn't reveal much of anything about the rich and shallow we haven't heard elsewhere — with more devastating bite.
We're not even accorded in this world of conspicuous consumption the magnitude of a runway show that would keep our own eyes popping. Costume designer Linda Cho has the right idea, cheekily fusing the silhouettes of London in 1700 and Amagansett in 2018. But quel dommage! It looks as if the costume budget was slashed halfway through rehearsals. No way would a showboat such as Rene be caught dead in the same get-up — a frilly number that makes her look like a mauve Tower of Pisa — three different times in a crowd that considers Vogue the Holy Bible. And neither, for that matter, would poisonous bon mot-slingers such as Katrina (Erica Dorfler) and Charles (Brandon Espinoza) survive with closets consisting of a single outfit.
O, the confounding limitations of not-for-profit!
Rebeck, the prolific playwright who shepherded the Broadway-centric "Smash" to television, writes amusingly well about modern problems: Her recent "What We're Up Against" at Women's Project Theater in New York is one of the most satisfying comedies chronicling the uphill battles for women in the workplace I've ever encountered. Falling back on the social templates forged in other eras seems to have restricted rather than freed her. While we may marvel that the fripperies that Congreve conjured in his money-obsessed snake pit of 17th-century swells have some universal application, most of the easy jokes in this new "Way of the World" come across as stale.
The plot, as ever, is a mere excuse for sneering at the leisure class. Rebeck has it that highly desired Mae (Eliza Huberth) is an heiress with a $600 million fortune but, to the horror of Rene and the rest of the swarm of dyed-in-the-wool materialists, she wants to blow it all on helping the poor of Haiti. Mae's Achilles' heel is a bona fide heel, one handsome Henry (Luigi Sottile), a chiseler who could have been chiseled by Michelangelo. In lumbering fashion, the play pushes them — ultimately and unconvincingly — into each other's arms.
Alexander Dodge, the set designer, has a nifty notion for giving context to the culture of acquisitiveness we have infiltrated: a floor-to-ceiling wall of cubby holes, each containing the kind of fashion accessory only a mogul could afford. Nielsen, a superior clown, makes capital use of one of the items, a hideous blue hat that seems to consist of a Christmas ornament attached to a reusable icebag. More of this actress's outrageousness would be a better way forward for Rebeck's satirical world.
The Way of the World, written and directed by Theresa Rebeck, adapted from the play by William Congreve. Set, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, M.L. Dogg. With Elan Zafir, Daniel Morgan Shelley. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $35-$79. Through Feb. 11 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.