Ah, the 1%. If you can’t join ‘em, berate ‘em.
That’s the thought behind Theresa Rebeck’s cynical, screwball-funny, comedic bed-hopping The Way of the World, a fresh adaptation of William Congreve’s equally contemptuous 1700 Restoration comedy of manners that skewered the lifestyles of the rich and aimless.
Rebeck flips the locale from England to the Hamptons, and drops the lord and lady names for more contemporary monikers, but otherwise not much has changed in 300-odd years. It’s still fun to mock entitled rich people and watch them gossip and engage in nasty backbiting—even more so now that we embark on our second year of an American culture that revels in crassness and meanness.
The characters in The Way of the World are pros at sniping and subterfuge and show us peons how snark can be done with style. Everyone is pretty much pure evil in Prada and their antics are cruelly enjoyable in the Dangerous Liaison vein—to such a degree they actually make a strong case for the upside of being downwardly mobile.
In other words, it’s a bitch to be rich.
No one feels that more acutely than Mae (Eliza Huberth, grounded and gleaming with goodness), an American heiress who wears her $600 million fortune like a giant price tag on her head. Well-meaning and altruistic, Mae feels—and rightly so, the way she is treated by family and friends—that no one really sees her, only a bunch of dollar signs and zeros.
Mae wants to spend all of her money to rescue Haiti from its troubles, an amazingly prescient moment, given the latest headlines and Trump tweets. Rebeck, who also directs this frothy and fanged work, inserts a joke that must have been written last-minute. When Mae tells her Aunt Rene (Kristine Nielsen), a divine ding-a-ling, of her plans, Rene replies “But Haiti’s a shi-shi-shi…shambles!” and brings down the house.
Nielsen’s inspired flightiness—accompanied by fusillades of eye-rolling, double takes, shameless mugging and deranged physical comedy—puts you in mind of Bette Midler crossed with Rosalind Russell and Marie Dressler. She’s at once hopelessly high-class and hilariously brought down low by her libido (despite experiencing what she blurts out as “Menopause—there, I said it!”—a nifty shout out to the realities of sexuality and older women) and totters off with the show on her ridiculous high heels.
Just when you think she’s exhausted her bag of tricks, Nielsen comes up with something else to crack you up, such as when she giddily, desperately tries to seduce newcomer Lyle (Daniel Morgan Shelley, gentlemanly and perceptive) and is more successful with friend Reg (Elan Zafir). A blustering preppie blowhard, Reg pounds his chest and crows with post-coital splendor, while Rene, comically tangled in the sheets, drolly comments”Oh, I’m just lying here quiet.”
Not that there aren’t plenty of things to savor in this production, as visually ravishing as a Vogue fashion spread with a set by Alexander Dodge that looks like a high-end boutique with light boxes filled with designer handbags, hats, jewelry and accoutrements; runway-worthy lighting by Donald Holder (and accompanying club music in a sound design by M.L. Dogg) and over-the-top silly but somehow chic costumes by Linda Cho. It’s the kind of setting where the cocktails match the décor.
Rene wants the best for Mae—and of course, for herself. Desiring to continue the lavish lifestyle to which she has become accustomed as her niece’s guardian, Rene thinks it’s best to ixnay the Haiti idea and marry Henry (Luigi Sottile, an Adonis with buttery charm), a rake Mae claims to detest because—jeez, can’t you cut the guy a break?—he slept with Rene “to be polite.”
The Way of the World
closes February 11, 2018
Details and tickets
Mae may doth protest, but the truth is everybody wants Henry. And to their delight, he wants them back. Bedding down everyone from the aforementioned auntie and the glitteringly malicious BFF Katrina (a superbly calculating, catlike Erica Dorfler) to a never-forgotten one night stand with gay friend Charles (Brandon Espinoza, a judgmental Judy of the highest rank) and a dalliance with a Waitress (Ashley Austin Morris, deceptively perky), Henry spreads his talents across the Hamptons.
He’s surprised by his depth of feeling, however, for Mae and wants to prove he’s worthy of her. While you’re never quite convinced that Henry and Mae have a sterling future together, Rebeck (and Congreve) don’t place the blame on the characters themselves, but whether finer feelings and good intentions can flourish in a jaded society that celebrates opportunists, greed and scandal.
In this rancid stew, who can blame anyone for their behavior, even the Waitress, who turns out to be much more complex than a cheerleader-hired help for the wealthy. In a brilliant scene at a catered party, Katrina disdainfully sinks her claws into the Waitress, grilling her about the ingredients in the hors d’ouerves—Vegan? Non-dairy? Gluten Free?—she pounds, sending the Waitress back into the kitchen with her demands. Why? Because she can.
Rebeck or someone must have been a server at some point to carve such a pointed, genuinely painful scene.
The Way of the World allows us to laugh richly at the elite, but also shines a Tiffany mirror on all of us with a “me, first” First World attitude.
The Way of the World . New adaptation of the play by William Congreve written and directed by Theresa Rebeck . Featuring: Erica Dorfler, Brandon Espinoza, Eliza Huberth, Ashley Austin Morris, Kristine Nielsen, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Luigi Sottile, Elan Zafir. Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge. Costume Design: Linda Cho. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Sound Design: M.L. Dogg. Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow. Production Stage Manager: Scott Hammar. Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Short. Produced by Folger Theatre. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.