Comedies are most frequently judged on the number of laughs they receive. And why not? If the goal of a book, a film, or a play is to elicit laughter - and perhaps even present some valuable social insight - that's as good a way as any to measure success. But some works, through no fault of their own, are best judged not by their punch lines, but their setups. It's rapidly approaching time to declare She Stoops to Conquer just such a play.
Reason tells us that this shouldn't be necessary: Wouldn't that do a disservice to the classic play's author, Oliver Goldsmith, and suggest that his 18th-century farce has gone out of style? It's hard to say, though comedies about the misguided ways men and women behave while in love with each other aren't likely to completely lose their relevance any time soon. But it's almost impossible to judge the work on its own comedic terms when, in interpretation, it's so often treated like a no-royalty substitute for Noises Off.
Like Michael Frayn's farce-to-end-all-farces, She Stoops to Conquer is better known today for its wildly enjoyable destination than how anyone arrives at it. For the Irish Repertory Theatre's attractive but uneven production, which runs through June 26, Charlotte Moore has directed the piece in just this contemporarily traditional way: Sell the funny at a premium, and throw the rest in the bargain bin. Moore certainly succeeds: When her production is funny, it's very, very funny. But when it's not, it's very, very not.
The setup, in brief: Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (Remak Ramsay, Patricia O'Connell) have a plan to marry their daughter Kate (Danielle Ferland) to the son of their friend Charles Marlow (Donald Grody). But when the son (Brian Hutchison) becomes lost on the way, he meets up with Mrs. Hardcastle's other son, Tony Lumpkin (Tim Smallwood), who tricks the young Marlow into believing that the Hardcastle house is really an inn. When he finally arrives at the house... Well, you get the idea.
Making the play consistently engaging from beginning to end is always a challenge, given the substantial amount of exposition in the earlier scenes that doesn't lend itself easily (if at all) to the wild characterizations that make the later scenes so amusing. And preparing for the payoffs of the multiple cases of mistaken identity that eventually give Goldsmith's play its significant laugh factor is similarly not easy. So the onus is on the actors to find enough joy and cleverness in the introductory scenes to prevent them becoming a giant theatrical sleeping pill.
But Moore and her performers tend to give such short shrift to the establishing material - which also includes a subplot about Lumpkin's pre-arranged marriage to Mrs. Hardcastle's niece Constance (Jennifer Bryan) and Constance's love affair with young Marlow's friend Hastings (Tommy Schrider) - that it's difficult to get involved in anyone's concerns. That James Morgan's portrait-strewn set, Linda Fisher's elaborate period costumes, and Robert-Charles Vallance's wig and hair design are so exquisitely beautiful as wedged into the intimate Irish Rep space only underscores the emotional disconnection you feel with the characters.
Only a few performers are able to compensate: O'Connell so lusciously caresses each vowel she speaks that waiting to hear her becomes a pleasure all its own; Grody brings a natural likeability to both Charles Marlow and a landlord; and Ferland's comic timing is so impeccable, especially when impersonating a barmaid (young Marlow becomes tongue-tied around women not below his station), that she seems to generate laughs as easily as she breathes. Everything else here, though, is considerably more labored, at least until after intermission, when the various entanglements are unraveled with humor enough to compensate for earlier doldrums.
Those less scintillating moments include a newly scripted (and leaden) prologue, in which the amiable Lucas Caleb Rooney (who also plays the Hardcastles' servant, Diggory) laments the political correctness that has begun to dampened the enjoyment of comedy. But he exhorts the audience to give the company a chance and to rise to the occasion and openly enjoy what they see. The audience, this production proves, is willing and able to do so when such opportunities arise. But in this She Stoops to Conquer, that just never happens often enough.
Irish Repertory Theatre