9th June 2013,Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman at the Kennedy Center
Jealous men behaving oddly was the theatrical theme of the week. After the unfounded jealousy and excessive response of a king in The Winter’s Tale, today I enjoyed the understandable jealousy and extraordinary response of a thespian in The Guardsman. These contrary responses to what is, at some point in all our lives, a universally experienced emotion, nonetheless both expressed the primal power of betrayed love. In The Guardsman, the plot revolves around a famous theatrical couple in early 1900s Budapest. The actress (Sarah Wayne Collies, from TVs The Walking Dead and Prison Break) has a promiscuous past in which she took many lovers but discarded them after six months. She has now apparently settled down to domesticity with her husband (Finn Wittrock). But as their six month anniversary approaches, the husband begins to notice or imagine changes in his wife’s behaviour, which lead him to suspect that she is ready to discard him too. When he finds out that her fantasy man is a military officer with a sensitive side, he begins to send her flowers and notes from a mysterious imperial guardsman. He then tells her that he will be out of town for a few days; he puts on his guardsman disguise and arranges to meet his wife to see if she will be seduced by the guardsman. As his alter-ego’s attempts at seduction continue, the actor grows more and more jealous of the non-existent guardsman. Clearly flattered by the attentions of the exciting stranger, his wife at first resists his attempts but eventually begins to succumb…
After seeing a number of Shakespeare productions set in different periods, it was at least refreshing to see that a play written in the Budapest of the early 1900s was actually set in the Budapest of the early 1900s. And the stage design was excellent. Most of the play takes place in an upper middle class drawing room, with the remainder set in a box at the opera, and both locations were gorgeously represented. In the drawing room, La Belle Époque art hung on scarlet walls, the actress played Chopin on the grand piano, and the stage was liberally adorned with elegant Parker Knoll type armchairs, lavish floor cushions and chaise longues. The whole thing effortlessly called forth that central European bourgeois, Bohemian world which was eventually flattened to make way for the great, grey, grim utopia of communist dreams.
The program also made promising reading. The original Guardsman was written by Molnar Ferenc as a dark and bitter black comedy, which the 1920s Broadway adaptation turned into a light and airy farce. Ferenc was inspired to write the play by his real-life abandonment by his actress-lover (who eventually went on to play the lead role The Guardsman). Ferenc attempted to kill himself and then wrote this raw, dark play whilst recovering in hospital. So this production is based on a new translation designed to add the ‘black’ back to the comedy. And this is where the first problems arise: the husband-wife bickering is too intense, too realistic, to be funny. And after we have endured 20 minutes of anguished wrangling, the surreal, madcap elements of the play aren’t really strong enough to lift us back up. In returning the original agony, this adaptation loses too much of the funniness.
Nonetheless, even with this fundamental weakness, the play might have recovered in the second act, when the deception and ambiguity really get going. Collies is certainly enough of an attractive actress to play the role of an attractive actress. I’m not sure she had that ‘it’ factor which the dialogue suggests she needed, but she played her part competently and expressed her emotions with the passion and subtlety demanded. The family friend and ineffective admirer of the actress (Shuler Hensley), got many of the best lines, and he delivered them with great timing and the sardonic dryness of the lovelorn stoic. The husband though, on whose shoulders the success of this production really rested, was poorly cast. When out of disguise, his voice and accent were more evocative of a character from Dude, Where’s My Car? than that of a successful but desperate European man of the world. But his accent as the guardsman was much, much worse. Somebody, somewhere obviously thought that giving the guardsman a thick and ridiculous east European accent would add an extra element of humour to proceedings. Perhaps the director is a fan of Borat. In any event, the result was annoyance every time he opened his mouth. Finally, and as a proud little person myself it pains me to say it, the actor was too short to play a dashing military officer. The actress was a good three inches taller than him and the height mismatch undermined the entire effect. I could suspend my disbelief enough to believe that she wouldn’t recognize her own husband if he put on a fake moustache and a silly accent, but that this worldly-wise glamorous fox would fall so quickly under the spell of a bumbling short guy? No. A taller actor, or at the very least a short actor in a pair of Cuban heels, was needed.