The NoHo Arts Center is the latest company to revive Ferenc Molnár's "The Guardsman," a perennially popular, gentle skirmish in the battle between the sexes. (Lunt and Fontanne starred in its 1924 Broadway premiere and in the 1931 film; Harold Pinter used it as inspiration for his more overtly sadomasochistic play "The Lover.")
Written for young actors, the text has been "freely adapted" here by H. Patrikas Zakshevskis to give older performers an equal opportunity to demonstrate folly in love. Henry Olek and Susan Priver, a real-life couple, play the turn-of-the-century Viennese actors Max and Elena Schumann as seasoned celebrities ten years into a mid-life marriage.
Yet still, as Max confides to their friend, Heinrich, a theater critic and useful expository device (David Fruechting), he's so afraid that Elena will betray him that he has decided to test her. He fakes a trip out of town, then reappears disguised as a lovesick guardsman from the nearby Russian embassy.
As an actor, Max wants the guardsman's courtship to succeed; as a husband, he hopes it will fail. This conflict powers the ensuing hijinks.
Elena plays along, never indicating that she recognizes her husband behind his outlandish false mustache and eyebrows, florid accent and intrusive clanking sword. Certainly theater audiences have always been asked to accept such odd failures of perception, but Elena is also an actress—a better one than her preening husband. Not even her beloved housekeeper (Bonnie Snyder) can't decipher her motives. While his emotions are an open (comic) book, her more enigmatic inner life gives the story its depth.
Director Lillian Groag enters good-naturedly into the script's frolicsome meta-theatricality: Two solicitous footmen (Josh Imlay and Chad Anthony Miller) fuss over audience members as they take their seats and later primly rearrange the furniture onstage to transform Joel Daavid's pretty set from the Schumanns' house to their opera box and back. Both times, dopey maid Berta (Kaitlin Huwe), late to the party, reacts to the change with comic bewilderment.
But for some reason the laughs overall are few and far between--polite chuckles at best. According to the program, Groag has focused on the ambiguity of the script, eschewing "pure froth to which it's so often consigned." Although the actors are pleasant companions and the story is thought-provoking (It could be fruitfully relocated to Hollywood today, where Max would have so much deceptive technology at his disposal), the feel is heavy. And the lack of fire between the two leads makes it implausible that Elena, justifiably preoccupied by her luscious costumes (by Shon LeBlanc), would indulge Max's narcissistic shenanigans for so long.