Ferenc Molnár’s “The Guardsman” is given a proper world premiere treatment by Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) in its newly opened production. If you’d read the extant translation of “The Guardsman” available before, you may not have been satisfied overall, and STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie Monte certainly was not. Among the pantheon of playwrights who are the best friends she never got to know in person, Molnár was always at the edge of her artistic consciousness. A new collaboration with Molnár’s great-grandson Gábor Lukin, among those in attendance Opening Night, includes not only a very literal translation of Molnár’s “Testőr,” but also an arrangement by Lukin of the waltz “Printemps,” composed for Molnár’s younger sister. And yet, the play is still the thing.
Set in May 1910 in Budapest, the month of May-ing finds the Actor (Jon Barker), as the not-so-merry lad, who doesn’t feel like singing. As he’s married to the love of his life, he knows her straying ways. The Actress (Victoria Mack) is now a married maid who has a May-dream of her own and the Actor’s fear is that it does not include him. The Actress has not had a paramour who lasted more than six months. Though they were married in December—a whole flip of the May-December romance—they are at the critical point. Yet, the Actor has a Plan!
Enlisting the family friend, the Critic (Brent Harris), the Actor reveals this convoluted passion play and thus the game is afoot. Add in an eavesdropping chambermaid (Saluda Camp) and a pot-stirring châtelaine known as Mama (Wendy Barrie-Wilson), and we have our sparring partners. Mama and the Actor get along like Moses and Pharaoh and there’s a louche lurkiness around the Critic. He’s followed the Actress’ career as well as the Actor’s, but wants function and form to follow. He’s cuckolded the Actor a thousand times in fantasy, but what about fact?
Delightful character revelations, which include subtle sketches of the main characters, come from Sheffield Chastain as the Debt-Collector and Noreen Farley as the Usherette. Chastain has some mordant commentary, as the Debt-Collector specializes in lending to actors and knows their wily ways. The Usherette, too, has spent her life among theatre people and her interchange with the Actress is revealing of the gadfly nature of the self-absorbed. Vividly realized scenes, especially in the second act and the third, reward the perspicacious with further food for thought.
“The Guardsman” causes unbidden laughter to burble forth at several points. Barker’s Actor starts at over-the-top, and goes from sturm to drang in milliseconds, for a whiplash ride of delight. He’s so compelling that Harris’ Critic is soon on the roller coaster with him and their chemistry is delightful, as they alternate among all of the steps between funny man and straight man. Further, what Mack’s Actress knows or guesses, and when, is yours to decide. She is the Queen of the May and she’s got a way of twisting logic that many politicians would admire. Clearly this play has a shared world, the world of men and the world of women, and these performers are all soloists in this brilliantly revived play that touches your heart, your sensibilities of relationships and your funny bone all at once.
“The Guardsman” is playing through July 26, there’s only one thing for you to do. Select your visit and get your tickets now at: www.shakespearenj.org
. Be sure to look at the online Audience Guide available for each show, though if you don’t like spoilers, bear in mind that many don’t look at the Guide until after they’ve seen the performance. Whatever you do, make your plans today!