When a story is forgotten, dropped out of view and from the canon, it may be justly, because it has fallen hopelessly behind the times, or unjustly, because it still has something to give – or it may be a mix of the two, as is the case with the once-popular society comedy On Approval, pulled out of storage for a giving-it-their-all production at Washington Stage Guild.
It’s somewhat daring, and quite laudable, for director Steven Carpenter and his cast to stick their necks out for this nearly century-old play by the once-popular Frederick Lonsdale. A lot of the entertainment value of the production is left dependent on how well Lonsdale’s upper-crust satire, Wilde-ian barbs, and British wit translate for a modern audience, so the quality of the company’s work is only so much of the equation. Pleasingly, what the company does have to bring is top-notch, as all four performers, all the designers, and Carpenter give us great stuff to look at and listen to even during those times when Lonsdale’s humor has passed its sell-by date.
The experience is sharply divided between the first and second acts, so if you do attend and find that top half to be too predictable, don’t run away during intermission. In Act One, we’re introduced to a pair of would-be pairs. There’s optimistic heiress Helen (Megan Dominy) and the selfish, bankrupt Duke she adores, George (Dylan Myers). And there’s wealthy, vain and fussy Maria (Tricia McCauley) and her dear-old friend Richard (Paul Edward Hope), also down on his financial luck, whom Maria hopes to take away for a month “on approval” to test out his viability for marriage – since she has learned, as a divorcee, that people can sometimes turn out to be otherwise than they appear once you start really spending time with them.
The jokes and pokes in this first half tend to fall a little flatter, partially due to our familiarity with the tropes of rich-drunk-people being self-absorbed and teasing each other, partially because Helen has less to do (which leaves things feeling unbalanced), and partially because the milieu these characters live in – the highest of high society Britain during the Roaring 20’s – is so removed from ours, yet so much of the comedy relies on the characters’ commitment to the mores of that era (propriety, etiquette, wealth and title and how they were acquired).
Thus the story – and the actors – come much more alive in Act Two, when Helen and George follow Maria in her “on approval” month long test of Richard up in cold Scotland. Here the humor relies much more on universals of human behavior that are as true today as they were at any point in history. It’s the same kind of keenly-observational spirit that animates Wilde’s best comedy, or Shakespeare’s – except Lonsdale has a much more acidic and unforgiving point of view.
It’s quite delightful, actually, in a “I can’t believe they really said that!” kind of way, to see the intelligent Helen and good-hearted Richard uncover the nastiness of their potential romantic partners. All four actors raise storms on the stage in their highlight moments; Dominy and Hope make their better-angel characters relatable and flawed instead of saints, and Myers and McCauley excel at making George and Maria somehow attractive and vulnerable despite their overall awfulness. Lonsdale and the company let us understand why they are the way they are, but never, ever let them off the hook for it.
April 23 – May 17
Washington Stage Guild at the
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
Tickets or call 240 582-0050
Even Carl F. Gudenius’ set is more pleasing to the eye in the second act than in the first, with a nicely placed animal-head trophy looking coldly down at the relationships unravelling below it. If the play seems to end just as it seems like it’s about to get really interesting, it’s probably because Lonsdale would rather leave us with cynical uncertainty than letting us find out whether something so soft and sentimental as redemption is possible for the haughty George and Maria.
This is not to say that the first act is boring or a slog to get through; it’s just not as sharp, nor does it make the case for On Approval‘s revival-worthiness as much as the second act. Indeed, Carpenter deserves credit for keeping things lively and building tension and foreshadowing for the later proceedings in that initial half.
The complete result on WSG’s stage is worth a look, and probably as good as this play is going to get for possibly decades to come, for anyone who can look past some dust and mustiness to enjoy a cleverer-than-the-average-bear comedy.