On role-playing ... and love with 'The Guardsman' at Kennedy Center

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar's "The Guardsman" had a storied history long before it was re-translated by Richard Nelson, re-imagined by director Gregory Mosher and sent to the Kennedy Center where it now plays. It was a famous vehicle for Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne in 1924.

That earlier version of the play was a sprightly, light-hearted examination of a marriage almost on the rocks, between Budapest's most beautiful young actress and its most handsome young actor. Five months into the marriage, the actor suspects his new wife is restless and decides to test her fidelity.

He disguises himself as the ideal lover, a dashing guardsman, courtier to the emperor. Yet the more he woos his wife while in disguise, the more jealous he gets of the guardsman.

The climax of the play comes at the point where the Actress recognizes her husband and must decide whether or not to forgive his deception. In this production, there is plenty of room for individual interpretation regarding the Actress' realization. But that's just part of the fun.

Onstage
'The Guardsman'
» Where: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW
» When: Through June 23
» Info: $54 to $95; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org

Although this "Guardsman" uses the basic plot of Molnar's original, Nelson's version emphasizes the mystery at the center of the play, as it is not at all clear when the Actress recognizes her husband. And it is that mystery that gives the production at the Kennedy Center its depth and appeal. This "Guardsman" is darker, richer and far more satisfying than that earlier light-operatic version.

Sarah Wayne Callies is deliciously enigmatic as the Actress. Her cool, nuanced interpretation of the woman who entices the Guardsman is appropriately difficult to read. Finn Wittrock plays the Actor as a skillful but grumpy peacock who gives his wife many reasons to wish he were on tour. He is particularly appealing as the Guardsman, donning a mustache, beard and thick accent as well as a soldier's costume to attract his wife's attention.

The supporting cast is first-rate, particularly Shuler Hensley who plays the Critic with a dry, understated wit and Julie Halston as the caustic Mother.

Jane Greenwood's costumes for "The Guardsman" are stunning, including elegantly cut silk dresses and elaborate dressing gowns for Callies and perfectly tailored three-piece suits for Wittrock.

Envisioning a Budapest living room in 1910, its walls covered with burgundy velour, its ceiling hung with elegant Tiffany lamps, its floor covered with huge colorful pillows, John Lee Beatty creates the ultimate plush living space for two exotic artists.

There is a delightful absurdity in "The Guardsman" in the Actor's jealousy of himself and some intriguing in-jokes about actors and acting. But its central charm comes from delicate probing into the nature of the love between the Actor and Actress, the most romantic of romantic couples.

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