“Love and a cottage?” Miss Sterling’s eyes glaze with boredom as she lifts her chin with contempt. “Give me indifference and a carriage of six,” she declares icily on stage, fingering the pearl bracelets encircling her wrists.
Like almost all of the other characters in The Folger Theatre’s production of the 18th century comedy The Clandestine Marriage, Miss Sterling (D.C. superstar Susan Lynskey) concerns herself only with the monetary gains of marriage, brushing aside silly notions of love. She accepts her position as a man’s plaything, her future to be determined in a business deal by her father, Sterling (Michael Tolaydo). But when her fianc?e decides that her younger sister is a better match, Miss Sterling enlists the help of her society-climbing aunt, Mrs. Heidelberg (a delightful Catherine Flye), to recapture her man.
Plain younger sister Fanny (an overshadowed Jenna Sokolwski), in her earth-colored linen dresses and brown bonnet, inspires violent emotions from the men in her life, though she defers demurely to her older sister, rejecting any proclamations of love save those from her (shhh, don’t tell anyone!) husband, the loyal family help. Yes, silly Fanny got married but decided not to tell anyone until the timing was right – but now would be opportune, seeing as how she has a bun in the oven.
The audience is welcomed into the Sterling household for the weekend reception of Miss Sterling’s fianc?, Sir John Melvil (Ian Merrill Peakes), who is bringing his moneyed uncle, Lord Ogleby (Ted van Griethuysen), to finalize wedding plans. But all careful plans are laid to waste when Melvil declares his love for Fanny. The extremely vain and slightly lecherous Ogleby shortly follows suit, as well as just about every male that crosses the stage, expressing a desire for Fanny’s fanny – one suspects that if Ogleby’s assistant weren’t so flamboyantly gay, he would be interested as well.
As a fair-weather fianc? and “whirligig man of fashion,” Peakes is at his finest, leaping from one end of the elegant, lightly colored set (designer Tony Cisek) to another. He packs his lines with boundless energy and answers the question of why he doesn’t want to marry Miss Sterling with open-faced simpleness, stating plainly, “I don’t like her.”
Clocking in at three hours (including a 15-minute intermission), there are far too many simpering English protestations of love and honor in the show; enough that you want to jump up and scream at Fanny “Just tell them you’re married and end this madness!” Though director Richard Clifford encourages his actors to use modern physicality – including imaginative eye rolling, eyebrow raising and explicit face-making – to lighten up an overlong script, he could have simply cut a number of lines. The opening scenes were particularly grating, filled with tittering women and their deadly combination of shrill voices and high-strung nerves. However, the show picks up considerably with the arrival of Lord Ogleby, played with magnificence by van Griethuysen. Though he first creeps on stage with the assistance of two men, his traditional morning bevy of potions and tonics soon revives this vain old coot. As he warms up, stretching his hips, he looks downright sprightly until he turns left, declaring with unease, “that’s an ugly twinge.”
Assuredly, van Griethuysen has the best lines of the show, summing up the Sterling family (sans the lovely Fanny) as “Goths and vandals” as he caresses the lace cascading down his chest, emerging as a waterfall from his gold brocade vest and matching pantaloons. Packed with such accurate and cutting lines, the script is surprisingly modern, having been penned more than 215 years ago. Unfortunately, the costumes (Kate Turner-Walker) are surprisingly uneven – Ogleby looks fantastic in a brocade dressing gown while poor Tolaydo’s all-white bedclothes and face powder combine to make him look like the Pillsbury Doughboy. As Olgeby sighs earlier, “it’s too much.”
Indeed, that is the only criticism of the show – a little too much of everything: overacting, self-drawn beauty marks, dramatic rustling of skirts. The actors lay it on thick, hamming up their roles to an almost unbearable degree. But as this delicious ham of the finest quality piles up, grab some bread and stuff your face with a delightful meal before you realize your stomach hurts from eating too much.
The Clandestine Marriage runs at the Folger Theatre until May 22. Tickets are $30-48; purchase by calling (202) 544-7077.