A Toast to Elegance

Molnár's ninety-year-old comedy still sparkles in the Play House's new production.

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The Guardsman Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through November 26


Andrew May bestows his "assets" on Crista Moore.
Andrew May bestows his "assets" on Crista Moore.
With The Guardsman, the Cleveland Play House has taken upon itself a precarious challenge and has triumphed splendidly. This is one of those exquisite comedies of manners where high style is all -- the kind of gossamer that, on this continent, only Canada's Shaw Festival seems to be able to effortlessly weave. However, we've done Canada one better by recruiting Hegyi Árpád Jutocsa, artistic director of Hungary's national theater, who has polished Ferenc Molnár's romantic comedy until it glitters.

To relaunch a delicate soap bubble like this 1910 comedy is a far more laborious endeavor than serving up a decent King Lear. Shakespeare's tragedy works on so many levels that, even if one fails, it can still endure. On the other hand, a production of The Guardsman with one overplayed leer or underplayed bit of whimsy can turn this bonbon into rancid chocolate.

Vicki Smith sets the stage with burnished cupids floating among art-nouveau furnishings and rose-strewn re-creations of Hapsburg plush. On this romantic, lush set, the cast collectively glows like a Tiffany lamp, illuminating antique enchantment.

Molnár (1878-1952) was Hungary's answer to J.M. Barrie and Noël Coward, a playwright known for his wistful fantasies such as Lilliom (later musicalized as Carousel). He also excelled at tributes to theatrical folk, where feuding prima donnas set off witty sparks.

In the tradition of Kiss Me, Kate and To Be or Not to Be, The Guardsman confirms our expectations that darlings of the stage are capricious and exquisitely insecure slaves to their own egos. We have a tempestuous acting couple referred to only as "The Actor" and "The Actress." They live in exclamation points: madly in love with love, believing brilliance their God-given heritage. Fiercely jealous and egocentric, they have no qualms about bending reality. The wife, for example, looking for a convenient "Mama" for publicity purposes, turns her wardrobe woman into her mother.

After six months of marriage, the couple, in the manner of nervous thoroughbreds, have already come to troubled ways. She begins to play Chopin, music whose melancholy torments the husband with the belief that she is yearning for new pastures, a new lover. The play expounds on the dilemma of an insecure actor who believes that he is not loved for what he is and needs to masquerade as what he fancies his wife wants. He has invented a test of her fidelity, dressing as a Russian guardsman in curly blond wig and beard, with a musical-comedy accent. He fancies he has bamboozled her, yet the ironic joke of the play is that we never know for sure.

When this play had its American debut in 1913, under the title Where Ignorance Is Bliss, it had an immediate rendezvous with oblivion. In 1924, it was streamlined and brought back by the Theater Guild as a pedestal for the boyish impishness and brittle sophistication of emerging theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The play became a staple; seven years later, it was adapted to the screen and was the only major film appearance of its stars. Now, Crista Moore and Andrew May bring the same charisma to the Drury stage.

May, on and off for 20 years, has been the Play House's most adored asset. Here, his long-preserved puppyish charms have never been better served. Whether gingerly putting his hand to his curly locks to make sure his hairline remains intact or sprawling on a settee like the melancholy Dane in his brocade robes, May is the perfect personification of theatrical vanity. When he elicits a course of sighs and whinnies with his mellifluous tenor, he walks the line between boyish sex appeal and fey pomposity. His performance not only honors the memory of Lunt, but evokes a vintage Cary Grant.

Fontanne's Actress brought to mind an implacable middle-aged earth goddess with a Mona Lisa smile; Moore is on the opposite end of the femme-fatale spectrum. Dressed by Elizabeth A. Novak in Erté-inspired pajamas and flapper gowns, she brings to mind a Jazz Age Cinderella sans stepsisters. Nervously stroking a plant or on the verge of breaking into a Charleston, she is a rare mix of delicate and saucy. She acts with every part of her body, including creamy shoulders that arch in girlish seduction and toes that wiggle with delight. She unearths the wolf and prince in every functioning heterosexual male.

William Meisle portrays the sophisticated critic friend and commentator on pandemonium with exactly the right Continental savvy. Johanna Morrison's "Mama" makes a peppery co-conspirator, and a certain Golde performs divine pratfall service as the maid. Ron Wilson gives the play an extra wink as the bill collector.

After savoring this expertly retranslated and portrayed Guardsman, you'll probably want to curtail your bubbly ingestion -- at least temporarily -- as it's doubtful you'll encounter a finer vintage than that being poured on the Play House stage.

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