High-spirited, funny, snappily adapted and paced by director Scott Alan Evans, and crisply acted by a superb cast, The Actors Company Theatre‘s new production of the 18th-century classic She Stoops to Conquer is a comic delight.
While it may be a stretch to call Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy of manners, misunderstandings, deception, and triumphant love a proto-feminist play, it features not one but three strong, fully-drawn female characters. The plot revolves around courtship and marriage, with parents doing their darnedest to fix advantageous matches for their children. But each of the story’s four young lovers ends up with the person he or she truly loves, and they do so largely through their own efforts.
Jeremy Beck gives a finely focused performance as two-faced young Charles Marlow. Deceived by the trickster Tony Lumpkin (a gleefully funny Richard Thieriot) into believing that the Hardcastle estate is a country inn, he and his friend George Hastings (a smoothly convincing Tony Roach) barge in on old Mr. Hardcastle (John Rothman) with the brash impudence Charles reserves for his social inferiors. Then he proceeds to make cocky passes at Hardcastle’s daughter Kate, whom he takes for the barmaid.
But Charles is cripplingly shy with women of his own class. Meeting Kate as her real self, he can barely speak or look her in the face (hence the practicality of the later subterfuge). Portrayed with fitting assertiveness and cool three-dimensionality by Mairin Lee, Kate confidently fools Charles and manipulates her father and old Sir Charles (Charles’s father), posing as someone of a lower class in order to gain Charles’s love and her father’s approval.
Also fun is the subplot romance between George and Kate’s friend Constance (a worthy Justine Salata), whom Cynthia Darlow’s warm and cheeky Mrs. Hardcastle has been scheming to match with barfly Tony, her son by a previous marriage. But enough. It’s not the details of Goldsmith’s preposterous plot that make it work; it’s the skillful way he wove them together and his sly, fluid way with dialogue. And it’s not any of these fine performances individually that galvanizes this revival; it’s the brightly colored vision saddled up by Evans and the gifted creative team, and the gusto with which the actors take the reins.
Women today, we hope, no longer have to stoop to conquer. But some things never change. In the words of the philosophical Hardcastle: “There was a time, indeed, I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.” As Hillary Clinton rides closer to the U.S. presidency, Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon edge toward a confrontation over Brexit and Scottish independence, and Saudi women struggle to run for office and get behind the wheel – as more women conquer without egregious stooping – one can only wonder, can they do any worse than the men? Goldsmith probably would have said, “Surely not.”
She Stoops to Conquer runs through November 5 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row in New York City. Visit Telecharge or the box office or call 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 for tickets.