Playing Molnár, the Hungarian playwright born in Budapest, is a little like snowboarding. You have to ride the dialogue well forward and stay dangerously fast and loose to get plenty of air and lift off. Husbands & Lovers, Ferrenc Molnár’s work about how men and women “can’t get no satisfaction” from each other, receives its American premiere as part of Washington Stage Guild’s silver anniversary season. The company serves up a surprisingly fresh work from the 1920’s that speaks to our hilarious inadequacy to speak the language of love.
Ferrenc Molnár wrote about forty plays with characters that excel at light and flashy banter. Commendations to Bill Largess who both adapted and directed this one. Largess clearly has a passion for the writer; Washington Stage Guild has produced more Molnár than any other playwright other than the brilliant and equally loquacious social satirist George Bernard Shaw.
Husbands & Lovers is less a play than a series of vignettes with four actors often announcing the titlesthen stepping into the situations, switching ages and partners in a seemingly endless romp to show the ongoing struggle of the sexes to communicate successfully on the subject of love. It’s a kind of La Ronde event, with parallels to that Arthur Schnitzler play that has its own carousel of switching partners, one relationship morphing into the next.
In this production, Husbands & Lovers boasts a series of thirteen enactments that seem to prove conclusively that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Conrad Feininger (Him), Laura Giannarelli (Her), Peter J. Mendes (He) and Lynn Steinmetz (She) take turns pairing up either with lovers or friends and throw themselves to the test each time as performers It was quite a workout!
Oddly, some of the best moments on stage were when the women were alone together as friends and when the two men were connecting alone together. In the scenes between the various couplings, male and female, the sparks didn’t fly. I couldn’t quite believe the characters were truly enjoying the game with each other.
One of the problems was that the actors are not always in the same world, stylistically speaking. The play demands a kind of athleticism of physical style as well as consummate delivery of language that the production hasn’t quite yet achieved. This isn’t drawing room Noël Coward, all smoothed out. Instead, there should be a coiled, spring-like quality in these creatures, a kind of wind up, manic doll quality that would drive through these scenes. If I have it right, then Feininger realizes it most fully with one shoulder just a little cocked, his torso bristling with energy and his face often a mask of surprise or dismay. Feininger has appeared in other Molnár productions at Washington Stage Guilde and has approached this work with something akin to a clown persona and a larger than life quality. He fully realizes these odd characters that he steps into, then throws himself into the ring full tilt.
Actresses Giannarelli and Steinmetz keep the pace and the vocal variety going and each of them have some wonderful moments when they cut loose. I love Giannarelli as a young girl, when she babbles hysterically at her beau because he’s ruined her first kiss for her forever by kissing her as Miss Choti always kisses her “inside eye, outside eye” and she is sure he’s learned that kind of kissing from that same Miss Choti.
Steinmetz has her own great scene when, bundled up, tired and cranky and standing outside in the chilly morning she gets love talk from a guy, who doesn’t get that it’s not the right setting, time, or mood for love talk. She launches a full attack on the unsuspecting man, who stands stunned by her barrage and leaves believing she is a cold-blooded harpy. One moment later, the audience sees her forget every adamant thing she has just said and fly with passion into the arms of another man.
Both these scenes share the point that men are spoilers who, thick-skinned as rhinoceroses, don’t fulfill the romantic dreams the women have long harbored. They also remind us that women are born liars. Well, perhaps, just a wee changeable.
Peter J. Mendes seems to be the one who is still finding his way in both style and language. In almost every scene there were trip-ups of lines. When he does let himself get silly and physically free, as he does in the scene as the over-the-top painter and would-be lover, he is very funny, insisting just a little too strongly that he will take on every detail and expense himself. As he describes his dream of the Countess naked for his canvas, the Countess keeps adding clothes to modify his fantasy.
As the show careens to its climax, we get one of the many great lines of the evening.
“A man can forgive a woman who betrays him, tortures him, beggars him, abandons him, but never, never can he forgive the woman who shows him how stupid he is.”
It’s not that the Molnár’s message is new. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. But with the actors settling into the wild ride, and enjoying really listening and playing the sparks behind the banter, they may be born aloft yet for a great ride.
Running Time: 95 minutes without intermission