The Way of The World, written and directed by Theresa Rebeck. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Brent Langdon as Lyle and Kristine Nielsen as Rene; photo: Taylor Crichton
"...some of whom are important or famous."
Brent Langdon, David Turner, Nilanjana Bose, Brian Dykstra; photo: Taylor Crichton
Sociopaths are in control in Theresa Rebeck's new play, "The Way of The World," having its world premiere at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont. Based, in part, on William Congreve's 1700 play of the same name, and set in the Hamptons of Long Island where the rich and unpleasant play at sexual games and money games, this new work has as much to do with Congreve as it does to the TV show, "Revenge" which ran for four seasons on ABC-TV. The story deals with Henry, an opportunistic, horny young man, who uses his friendship with Charles, a wealthy if somewhat pornographic gay socialite, to woo Mae who is the inheritor of $600million and is also rather vaguely moral. Henry has already had an affair with Mae's aunt, Rene, and will have an affair with Mae's best friend, the wealthy Katrina, and also with a waitress who is a small-time thief.
The patterns here echo Congreve's original and they also share traits with the characters from the television series. Charles, for example, the "best friend" is based on the Fop, Fainall, but is closer in presentation here to Nolan Ross, the gayest character on the TV show, for Charles is frankly and openly gay, in love with Henry, known as Mirabell in the Congreve version, who is pursuing Mae, formerly Millamant, and so forth and so on.
Congreve's play is considered one of the most perfect Restoration Comedies. It is a funny play. So is Rebeck's new play. There are laughs galore but there is also a deeply serious side to the work. As she shows us how our current 1%ers manage their not-so-private lives she takes the opportunity to mock double-sided morals and the way that lies can breed more lies and how Trumpeted half-truths can make us believe whatever we need to believe to move forward. Insidiously political, the play can be enjoyed on many levels.
David Turner's gay socialite, Charles, is so much akin to Gabriel Mann's Nolan Ross that the similarity cannot be ignored. Openly cavorting with whomever he chooses, he is a sweet confidante to Katrina, an encourager of Henry - whom he loves and covets - and a seducer of Lyle, a different sort of gold-digger. Turner's playing is a keystone to the style of this play and its success owes a great deal to his reinforced subtlety and nuanced readings of his lines.
Katrina is played to perfection by Nilanjana Bose whose beautiful face and voice provide a near-perfect aspect to her character. Even as a betrayed lover she has a grace and a charm not anticipated within the circles in which she travels. Bose is wonderful playing the morning-after scene with Turner.
Brent Langdon is the handsome older stranger in the midst of Long Island society. Instantly attractive to Rene, who comically attempts to seduce him, his true bent becomes clear shortly and Langdon plays both aspects of this man with a total honesty that is to be applauded. He is a handsome man who knows how to be understated about his appearance while his character uses that aspect of himself to attract and deceive.
His cousin, Reg, is played by Brian Dykstra. Reg is a type who knows his wealth will excuse any gruffness or commonness in his character. He is as open a man as can be expected. Dykstra has a good time with the role, giving it bravado and crassness at the same time. He is perfect in the part and his final major scene with Rene is delicious.
Lest you think a character called Waitress is a minor play, let me correct that impression. Her semi-anonymity is a precious commodity in this person's life. It allows her to mix, unnoticed, in a society she could sorely love to inhabit and provides her multiple opportunities for advancement in her own way. Her affair with Henry is a perfect part of her scheme until the scheme is revealed. There were no shortage of such characters on "Revenge" by the way. Katie Paxton plays the part to absolute perfection. Just pretty enough to be attractive to a roue and a cad, she is just common enough to keep under the radar. She serves an odd purpose in this play, however, as Rebeck has given her a quasi-narrative role, addressing the audience directly which is not done by anyone else. These are not the usual Restoration period asides either. They are full monologues. It is well handled by Paxton, but it does throw the play into a different arena altogether.
Katie Paxton as Waitress; photo: Taylor Crichton
Josiah Bania and Kristine Nielsen; photo: Taylor Crichton
Elizabeth Evans plays Mae, the woman around whom all revolves in this play, as though she needed to be heard to be heard. There is an alarmingly aggressive note to her performance and Mae's morality becomes almost too much a central point, one that brings the comedy down to a more serious level than is necessary. Rebeck's character dresses down, plays rarely and won't be used by anyone to advance an ideal or a cause. When she finally comes to realize that love is not as important as arrangements, she turns into a human character rather than a symbolic figure. Evans is challenged to make this all honest and real. She does the best she can, I imagine, with the most complex role in the play.
Similarly Josiah Bania plays Henry in a way that is slightly confusing. Who he is, and what he is, and how he manages to exist in this world he inhabits is very unclear. The good-looking actor is not so very handsome that all can be excused or accepted due to his looks. Instead he wanders through the play in one costume, the same from day-to-day, playing an odd combination of stereotypes from the television show and leaving us completely confused about all but one aspect of his personality: he is fabulous in bed. That is in the writing but not in his appearance, so it is a tribute to the actor that we can believe it. He does it through indifference. No one he sleeps with has truly touched him, no matter how actively physical he has been with them. The only one who seems to have gotten to him emotionally is the elusive bird-like creature, Mae. Bania plays this aspect of Henry with outrageous honesty and we buy into what he is selling, no matter what it may be.
One person who feels the burn here is Rene played with an outrageous sense of the comedy by Kristine Nielsen. So unlike all the other characters on stage, she brings a Mary Boland sense of style and delivery to the role, the grand society matron for whom all the world is sexual and all the men merely players. Rene, herself, is a player and she plays to win always, exacting her little revenges when she can. Nielsen never fails to get her laughs and we also feel, deeply, her interpretation of the anger Rene harbors toward Henry. This casting, like that of Turner and Langdon and Dykstra, is the finest of the theater's contribution to Rebeck's play.
Narelle Sissons' set is a miracle of movement in open space which, itself, provides a sense of the beach community of the wealthy in South Hampton. Barbara A. Bell's costumes generally give us the proper appearance of these characters. Michael Giannitti's lighting is oriented to the mood of each scene and supports the comedy throughout.
Rebeck's play stays close to its source while providing a most modern company of redefined characters. It is hard to miss with a play based so closely on another play which is a classic and considered one of the finest ever written. She has given her people some delightful lines and her new interpretation of how modern society functions in this situation as excellently wrought. I do wish she had worked with another director who might have given a finer perspective to some of the small problems in the play, particularly defining Mae, however her staging is well thought out throughout.
Where this play will show up next and how it will fare is unknown, but the play is certainly a crowd pleaser in many ways and should find an afterlife that will satisfy its creator. This first venture, thank you Ms. Rebeck in two acts, is something to see if only for Kristine Nielsen and David Turner. Forget everything you know about 17th century comedy (if you, indeed, know anything about it) and see where our modern influences from film and television have brought this sort of drawing room play.
The Way of The World plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont through August 13. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at dorsettheatrefestival.org.