Playwright Oliver Goldsmith found fame with his play She Stoops to Conquer in 1773, despite his rather unfashionable social reputation among London’s upper crust. Indeed, Goldsmith made it his life’s work to go against the grain, and She Stoops to Conquer exemplifies his disdain for Sentimental Comedy—a genre that was en vogue in the first part of the 18th century. Those saccharine works featured one-dimensional characters whose apotheosis was meant to instill what Sentimental playwright Richard Steele haughtily deemed “a joy too exquisite for laughter.”
Goldsmith, on the other hand, was a champion of hearty laughter, which this play—when produced well—can stir up in droves. Compared to Sentimental characters, Goldsmith’s characters are imperfect, and therein likable. The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) is staging a slightly imperfect (and therein quite likable) production of Goldsmith’s important play, directed and adapted by Scott Alan Evans. The moments when this production shines most are when it is faithful to Goldsmith’s unique genre of “laughing comedy,” aimed to elicit belly laughs with physical ridiculousness and silly twists of plot.
She Stoops to Conquer presents a bouquet of delightful characters—two eligible ingénues, a couple of bachelors from the city, and a pair of meddling parents—all of whom are subject to the playful deceits of the puckish Tony Lumpkin (Richard Thieriot). The action takes place at Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle’s estate in the English countryside. Their daughter Kate (Mairin Lee) and their ward, Constance Neville (Justine Salata), are excited to receive two handsome young suitors (Charles Marlow and George Hastings, played by Jeremy Beck and Tony Roach) at the estate that evening.
Tony, who also happens to be Kate’s illegitimate brother, foils the plan when he intercepts the suitors at the village pub. Wanting to free himself of his mutually undesired betrothal to Constance, Tony concocts some of his signature meddling. Bringing the suitors to the estate, Tony leads them to believe that they are staying a night at an inn—and that the elder Hardcastles are actually innkeepers. This creates room for Kate, disguised as a barmaid, to woo the painfully shy Marlow, and for her cousin Constance to pursue her true love Hastings.
Overall, the cast seems to enjoy themselves in this genre. Thieriot as Tony absolutely sparkles with his mix of conniving wit and lowbrow buffoonery. As his bumbling parents, Cynthia Darlow and John Rothman are adorably befuddled by their son’s antics. Things really get good after intermission, in which Tony sends his enraged mother and Constance on a 40-mile carriage ride to nowhere, and Mr. Hardcastle finally snaps after being treated like the help in his own home. The two sets of young lovers deserve even more spice, however, especially in light of their comic counterparts; perhaps that could be created with more emphasis on physical humor rather than delivery of language.
One distinct aspect of this production is its intermittent puncturing of the fourth wall. Evans’s direction leans heavily on this device, employing a considerable amount of direct audience interaction and unmasking of the usual theatrical dressings. For example, there is no backdrop to hide the actors as they await their entrances. Instead, they are visibly seated in two rows of chairs on either side of the stage, which is a raised platform. Admittedly, Goldsmith's original script contains plenty of asides—monologues that characters deliver directly to the audience—but by stripping the stage bare, Evans’s adaptation carries the meta-theater several steps further. The bits of audience interaction between scenes undermine the actors’ comic choices and interrupt the flow and style of the play. All in all, however, this nontraditional choice does not sink the production, which provides both a fun night at the theater as well as an opportunity to experience one of England’s most important and beloved plays.
TACT’s She Stoops to Conquer plays at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues) until Nov. 5. Tickets are available online here or by calling the TACT Member Hotline at (212) 560-2184 or (212) 947-8844.