On his deathbed, so the story goes, Bert Lahr was quoted to have said, “Death is easy. Comedy is hard.” And compared to farce, comedy is a springtime walk in a warm afternoon’s drizzle. The current production of “The Guardsman” is ample demonstration of that.
“The Guardsman” is without doubt the pearl of the two score plus plays Franz Molnár wrote, as well as the best known of his works today.* The original 1924 production provided Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the reigning royalty of Broadway for over two decades, with their greatest hit.
The work itself bridges the span of two separate worlds; the glittering old world of turn-of-the-century Europe with its nobility and high born sophistication, and the world of the 20th century with modern angst and Freudian overtones questioning our every choice and impulse.
The plot of the play is deliciously minimal, as the best farces tend to be.
Max Schumann (Henry Olek) the greatest actor of the day, suspects his wife Elena (Susan Priver), the greatest actress of the day, of infidelity, and what better way to catch her in the act than for him to attempt to seduce her while masquerading as a dashing Russian guardsman.
When the two leads possess the chops, and more importantly, share a mutual cadence “The Guardsman” presents a dueling duet that’s utterly delightful. While the production at the NoHo Arts Center doesn’t succeed in hitting those heights, it makes an appreciable attempt. What is missing is the pacing of the comedy and the current between Olek and Priver. In a light dining room comedy these two flaws might slip by. In farce, especially one of this craft, that pair of defects are as devastating as “Fat Man” and “Little Boy”.
The production calls for the furious exchange of two flashing rapiers between Olek and Priver. What we have is a rather prodding, but very good looking game of horseshoes.
Priver is stunning to watch. The whole production is stunning. Thanks in no small part to the outstanding costumes of Shon LeBlanc and a set by Joel Daavid whose work is constantly stylish and intelligent.
Mention must be made of two actors whose contributions to the show exceed their roles. David Fruechting as Doctor Kraus, the theater critic, is solidly connected to the material, and doesn’t miss a single comic opportunity, while displaying the panache the overall show lacks. Chad Anthony Miller’s role is a construct device for changing the scenes’ set pieces. However the commitment he makes raises him above the level of “device” and gives validation to the old chestnut, “There are no small roles.”
For what is most glaringly absent from “The Guardsman”, director Lillian Groag must bear the blame. While she has a strong eye for staging, she failed to either stoke the tempo of the piece or to choreograph the events and characters of the play within a unifying concept. It almost feels as if Groag has seen a production or two of the “The Guardsman” that impressed her to the point of attempting to emulate them here and there’s nothing wrong with that. Trouble arises when the replication process goes no deeper than a cloning of the surface façade.
When a director erects the framework of a show employing the blueprint of an earlier production, they must always keep in mind, it’s the swiftness and the roar what makes a tiger, not the stripes.
Still it is a stunning production.
* Molnár also wrote the play “Liliom” which was adapted into the musical “Carousel”.
NoHo Arts Center
11136 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA, 91601
Performances: May 17– June 22
Fridays at 8 p.m.: May 30; June 6, 13, 20
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: May 31; June 7, 14, 21
Sundays at 7 p.m.: June 1, 8, 15, 22
General admission: $25