It is, however, a sight unlike any you may have ever expected in a period piece—especially when that period is the late 18th century and the place is England. Jones, Gold, and the thrower in question, a young man named Lucidus Culling (Jeremy Strong), are counting on that. You’d never anticipate a prim-and-proper English play to involve dessert lobbing in any real way, let alone during a hissy fit, let alone by someone who (to put it nicely) “throws like a girl” with a flail of fingers and wrists, let alone by someone who speaks in an airy falsetto because he’s just that low on testosterone. Yet when these elements fuse, in front of David Zinn’s warm and inviting drawing room set, with the actors decked out in Gabriel Berry’s gorgeous Georgian finery, the result is something that’s at once mocking and genuine — an odd combination, but a highly fulfilling one.
What better way to examine the meaning of honor, and deconstruct dramatic works that promote it, than by examining someone who has none? Lucidus’s father, Nathaniel (Richard Poe), is humiliated that his sissy son has never fought a duel. Note that winning is not a priority, as the absence of Lucidus’s older, more decorated siblings attests. So to earn his father’s approval, Lucidus picks a fight with an ancient man in a park, unaware that he can be challenged instead by the man’s stronger and more robust son. This inspires Lucidus to find his own representative, which he does in the form of bar rat Henry Blaine (Christopher Evan Welch), who’s perfectly willing to be the marksman — and son — that Nathaniel ever had. Henry does not, by the way, mean the latter figuratively.
Though both acts end with a duel and no shortage of blood, the most cutting action occurs between, as Lucidus wrestles with his choices and their often disastrous consequences. He has people in his corner: his butler, Friedmont (Jarlath Conroy), and his friends Robert (Steven Boyer) and Gavin (Stephen Ellis), but they’re no more in tune with the harshest realities of life than Lucidus is. So it’s up to them to devise a way of proving that the battles they can’t fight are the ones that don’t need fighting in the first place, a belief that’s anathema to the Old World Nathaniel and his countrymen so revere.
The Coward may treat subjects of grave import — and man’s propensity toward violent solutions to nonviolent problems eventually becomes a major focal point — but it never drops its conviction that Lucidus is fighting a battle for which he is permanently unarmed, even when he tries to choose new weapons. This, along with the constant string of send-ups of English stuffiness (many centered on Friedmont, and delivered by Conroy in a priceless deadpan), ensures that the play rarely stops being funny. In the sequences when the most absurdities collide, which look frighteningly like our own world, it’s even quite a bit more than that.
The production as a whole shows that Gold is back in top form following his cartoonish misstep in Tigers Be Still last month, and keeping his actors resolutely real even if they’re living in a world that’s imaginary at best. Strong is a highly variable actor, but is ideal as a limp-spined son of privilege who doesn’t know how to man up when circumstances really require it — his Lucidus is an intoxicating marriage of pathetic and precious that arrests you from his first screeching word (“Father,” for the record). Poe is a paragon of starched-shirt masculinity as his father, and the contrast between the two provides fiery fuel for their intergenerational struggle. Welch, Conroy, Ellis, Boyer, and John Patrick Doherty (as Lucidus’s first dueling partner) turn in assured, personality-rich performances in roles that could too easily become parched parody.
If anything is lacking here, it’s only a degree of consistency in the writing. With more plodding and less plotting, the second act is something of a come down from the first, and struggles to keep its spirits high when matters turn slightly dark. Kristen Schaal is a scream as the high-born lady who wants to marry Lucidus to create a family worthy of her famous name, but the character is more of a restatement of central themes than an expansion on them, which somewhat stalls her lengthy (and rather one-joke) second-act speeches. And Jones’s tendency to inject too-modern speech (usually profanity) into his characters’ mouths spoils the fantasy of a vision of long-ago morality as filtered through present-day morals.
But nothing anyone says pries away the play’s firm grip on comedy or demolishing the received notions of world-class propriety so many plays have promulgated for so many centuries. By the time The Coward is finished, you won’t be sure whether you can — or should — trust that the world is the refined and sensible place it’s so often been depicted as on the stage. But you’ll have had such a good time along the way, that won’t matter — though the airborne pie, and everything it and its surroundings say about our own concepts of bravery, will seem considerably more important.