William Congreve's The Way of the World is a convoluted comedy revolving around the breeding habits of a small group of 18th-century rich people, who navigate the manners and social protocols of the day to win the hands of their true loves when they aren't trying to steal the fortune of a wealthy aunt. There's a more detailed, spoiler-laden synopsis in the program, as well as a family tree, but that's all you really need to know. Even without the synopsis, it's obvious the lovers will get together in the end and the aunt's riches will be kept from the conniving clutches of Congreve's unscrupulous villains. No doubt in 1700 the peculiarities of the plot and the myriad allusions to the politics of the day must have resonated with Restoration audiences. In 2009, we must content ourselves with Congreve's marvelously witty prose and the uniformly excellent performances by a cast that throws itself into the production with ambition and abandon.
The Way of the World is going to be a long (three hours, including a pair of 10-minute intermissions), brash and noisy farce regardless of who's at the helm. In the hands of Rebecca J. Ennals, it is a particularly rollicking and randy affair. Breasts overflow their cinched bodices, men prance like peacocks or stagger drunkenly about, servants pulls strings behind the scene for their masters, couples cannot keep their hands off each other. It's great fun, a lot of laughs and thanks to the fast pace and terrific acting, the hours fly by.
The play actually begins rather unpromisingly with a gimmicky prologue that Ennals has rewritten to draw parallels between Congreve's money-grabbing wretches and the celebrity-obsessed, paparazzi culture of today. Clad in deliberately dissonant costumes, whose flourishes swing wildly from historical to contemporary, the company raps their lines as they pretend to read from tabloids -- the headlines have been reworked with the names of the characters we will soon meet but don't yet know. There is, I'm sure, a connection between Congreve's players and Brangelina, but I found this linkage between events three centuries apart to be a bit of a stretch.
It does not help Ennals's case that the first scene between Fainall (Alex Kirschner) and Mirabell (Joseph Salazar) conversing in a chocolate shop drops the Restoration-celebrity connection entirely. Instead, we get a blizzard of words. Beautiful words, beautifully spoken, to be sure, but I had a difficult time following the anecdotes these two men were sharing as my ear adjusted to the vernacular, the rhythms of Congreve and the odd, similar-sounding names of his characters. As near as I could tell, Fainall, a cad, is married to a woman he does not love. Mirabell, not a cad, longs for the hand of a woman whose wealthy aunt he has offended, thus dooming his chances. We listen closely, straining to follow the plot.
Anticipating this early challenge for her audiences, Ennals has the rest of the cast pose behind a scrim to create tableau versions of the action the two men are describing. The goal is to better familiarize the audience with the characters and the play's copious backstory. It mostly works.
We don't need the device for long, and it is discarded entirely when Tony Witwoud (Ray Renati) flounces into view clad in a green coat, purple shoes, turquoise corset and enough makeup to make Emmett Kelly himself blush. He is, in short, a lavish clown, and he successfully upends the polite conversation between the two men with enough non sequiturs and nonsense to bring the play fully to life. From there it's pretty much a sprint to the finish.
Along the way we encounter a slew of quirky characters and fine performances. Witwoud is joined by his friend and drinking buddy Petulant (Jim Johnson), who is a vision in orange and has the droll delivery and comic timing of Bob Elliott. The two men are a great pair.
The women of The Way of the World are given their opportunity to shine in the second scene, which in this version of the play is set in a clothing store rather than St. James's Park as in the original. It's a clever updating, giving Mrs. Fainall (Shannon Warrick) and Mrs. Marwood (Carla Pantoja) a chance to establish their lopsided relationship (Marwood is desired by Mrs. Fainall's faithless husband) while musing on their shared problem: men. When we eventually meet Mrs. Millamant (Rami Margron), we learn that she, too, has her problems with men, but for her the trouble is reconciling her love for Mirabell with her equally fierce desire to remain an independent woman in 18th-century England where marriage reduces her to a mere possession.
One of the best aspects of this production are the performances of the ostensibly secondary players. Roberta Morris throws herself into the role of Lady Wishfort, the aforementioned wealthy aunt. Annamarie MacLeod dazzles as the lady's maid, Foible, who is married to Mirabell's valet, Waitwell (William J. Brown III). For his part, Waitwell has agreed to his master's plot to woo Lady Wishfort in disguise as Sir Rowland because... oh never mind, it's too complicated. Also great is Paul Loomis, whose drunken country bumpkin Sir Wilfull Witwoud is flat-out hilarious.
Similarly, many of the principles excel in their brief, second roles as servants of various sorts. These include Shannon Warrick, who makes us forget all about Mrs. Fainall for a few moments when she steals her scene with Sir Wilfull as a dull-witted footman. Jim Johnson bookends his Petulant with a turn as Peg, a painfully slow-moving servant who's seemingly deaf to the insults of his fulminating mistress, Lady Wishfort. And Paul Loomis and William J. Brown III don women's clothing, but do little else to disguise their gender, as Betty, the proprietress of the chocolate house, and Mincing, a maid to Mrs. Millamant, respectively. In the end, this supportive, ensemble spirit of the cast captivates us far more than the tenuous connections between Congreve's England and present-day America. Not to give away the ending, but that is more than enough.
The Way of the World runs through May 31, 2009 at Pear Avenue Theatre. For tickets and information, visit thepear.org.