When it comes to love, “a woman is like a good driver” who manages “gears and brakes according to the needs of the moment,” a man-about-town generalizes in “Husbands & Lovers,” a daisy chain of wry and witty playlets by Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar. As if to prove the point, this lesser-known work — on view in a somewhat stodgy Washington Stage Guild production — features enough canny female emotional motorists to fill the equivalent of the Daytona International Speedway.
Newly adapted by Bill Largess, who also directs, “Husbands & Lovers” ostensibly deals with liaisons and deceptions between sophisticates of both sexes in early 20th-century Budapest. But it’s the widows, wives and debutantes in Molnar’s breezily urbane world who seem to spot romantic twists and turns a mile ahead.
According to WSG, which has previously mounted “The Play’s the Thing” and other texts by Molnar, “Husbands & Lovers” (originally published in 1924) has waltzed around Britain’s theater scene but has never been mounted in America. If so, WSG Artistic Director Largess and his colleagues have done U.S. thespians a service by essentially rediscovering a piece that abounds in clever narrative reveals and Oscar Wilde-style bons mots (“The truth from a woman is as reprehensible as treason from a man.”).
Evoking worldly but carefree intrigues among opera-going, park-strolling Europeans, “Husbands & Lovers” summons happy thoughts of “The Merry Widow” and the movie “Gigi.” And with a script that calls for four role-juggling actors and scenery that’s merely suggestive of various settings (a salon, a riverbank, a summer resort, etc.), the play could be a boon to resource-strapped companies with a taste for light, debonair fare.
Admittedly, the ho-hum presentational style and slightly fustian acting of the Washington incarnation fail to give “Husbands & Lovers” much lift. Often standing in decorous pairs beneath an impressionistic gazebo-style roof (Carl F. Gudenius and Jie Yu designed the set, with its smattering of garden furniture; Sigridur Johannesdottir devised the period costumes, including a feathered turban and some spats), the cast often seems to gesture toward, but not fully inhabit, the manners of a more formal era.
Perhaps most at home in Molnar’s environment is Lynn Steinmetz, who plays the role known only as She — an umbrella title that allows the actress to depict a savvy philanderer, a prudent confidante and other personalities. The other performers — Conrad Feininger, Peter J. Mendez and Laura Giannarelli, as the characters Him, He and Her — sometimes look uncomfortable or stagey as they channel tales of hapless teenage lovers, hoodwinked older suitors (“At 15, every girl is an accomplished liar; at 20, an ingenious liar; at 30, an habitual one,” an oft-bamboozled male character proclaims) and more.
The air of unease is particularly unfortunate given the blithe insouciance with which Molnar needles sentimental idealism. Endless love? Unconditional love? Real trust? Absurd notions, according to “Husbands & Lovers.” Language itself may be unreliable — and that may be just as well, the play suggests: “Would a conversation between a man and a woman have any interest at all, I wonder,” a female character muses, “if the words meant the same thing to both?”
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Ferenc Molnar. Adapted and directed by Bill Largess; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Marcus Darnley. 90 minutes. Through March 18 at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org .