“Saying ’To hell with men’ only works if you’re wearing something fabulous.”
Pity the poor super rich one percent. Sure, they have mega-millions, homes in the Hamptons, outrageously expensive clothes, vacations, gee-gaws, etc., but ask yourself: what other demographic can the other ninety-nine percent freely and thoroughly condemn? And they’re so much fun to make fun of!
Writer/director Theresa Rebeck has discovered a creative brother under the skin: the great Post-Restoration playwright, William Congreve. His 1700 comedy, “The Way of the World”, joyfully skewered the English idle rich for their self-serving intrigues and shallow pretentions. Penniless fops pursued the scent of an heiress while over-dressed dowagers sat in their boudoirs or chocolate houses playing cards, plotting, and gossiping.
Fast forward 318 years, and the people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing are still with us. Rebeck’s “The Way of the World” now at Folger nods respectfully to Congreve’s play before sweeping us away to the East Hamptons and coming across even sharper and funnier than the original, occasionally landing a whiplash sting.
Lounging within this insulated and rarified society, a hilariously manic Aunt Rene (Kristine Nielsen) obsesses over her latest fashion purchase. Does it make her look fat? Is “real” – as in “real woman”- code for “fat”? Her niece, Mae-who-has-a-six-hundred-million-dollar-trust, (Eliza Huberth) swaddles her aunt in loving assurance while inwardly despairing over the duplicity of Henry (Luigi Sottile). Henry, of the handsome Pre-Raphaelite profile, made the tactical error of “sleeping with” Aunt Rene. “It seemed like the polite thing to do!” He claims in his own defense. Rene is dreadfully sorry, except for when she isn’t, and transforms her uncomfortable guilt into a universal “To hell with men!” to bolster Mae’s spirits.
Mae’s beautiful frenemy, Katrina, (Erica Dorfler) is no help. Preternaturally superficial, (she’s the one who grills the waitress over not vegetarian, but VEGAN canapes – was the yogurt made with soy?) her consolation can be summed up as “No crying – you’re wearing a really cute hat!”
And, of course, this innermost In Crowd has useful air-kissing friends for carrying out liaisons and subterfuges. Charles (Brandon Espinoza) mirrors Katrina’s frivolous obsession with appearances and, being gay, cherishes a private conviction that all “hot” straight men (Henry specifically) are secretly gay. So Katrina tells him, but he wouldn’t even speak to Katrina if she didn’t have that vintage Louis Vuitton handbag!
Thanks to the useful party boy, Reg, (Elan Zafir) and his even more useful cousin Lyle, (Daniel Shelley) Aunt Rene can be distracted while Henry tries to repair the damage and return to Mae’s good graces. Appetites are keen when there’s nothing else to do, and one should expect a bit of frank, sexual tussling when the opportunities arise. But have we heard anything about “love”? Is that even “a thing” here? Somewhere in the shadow of all this glitter, a nugget of real gold lies.
When Mae finally tires of her world, we know it because she wears Birkenstocks and doesn’t care who sees them. And because she is in love – and heartbroken – whatever pleasure she may have once had for the life she lives is now gone. Her obsessive fear of being pursued only for her wealth turns to an obsession with giving it all away – to good works in Haiti, preferably. The real question lies with Henry. Does he love Mae or her money?
Balancing the play’s surfeit of cynicism is the un-named Waitress (Ashley Morris) who observes as she serves these strange, obtuse people who collect myriad “little treasures”. Her confidential, slightly overwhelmed appeal gives even well-heeled D.C. audiences someone to identify with. After all, we’re talking about THOSE people – not us.
Brilliant satire that it is, this “…World” is supported by gracefully nuanced design.
Alexander Dodge’s sleek set shifts from restaurant patio where our heroes sip blue cocktails to Aunt Rene’s living room, and – not as frequently as Aunt Rene would like – her bedroom. But the overwhelming motif is consumerism, the overwhelming color – white.
Dozens of serenely arranged squares, subtly lit from within, display their wares: necklaces, shoes, hats, handbags – all, no doubt, fabulously expensive. The message is clear: these aren’t just commercial products; these are art. They have to be expensive because only the super-wealthy can appreciate them. Donald Holder’s delicate lighting emphasizes the idea of a gold-plated, white carpeted world not just beyond reach, but beyond possibility.
Costume designs by Linda Cho make some cunning references to the early 18th century while remaining solidly vogue. Mae wears shorts with a sweeping train, Henry’s billowing sleeved shirt suggests a duel fought with epees, and Charles’ ruby red loafers would cause a proper scandal in the right century.
Rebeck’s scorchingly funny look at manners works because it is familiar. We recognize the skewed character and obsessively self-reverential behavior of those accustomed to unimaginable wealth. But so did William Congreve. After all, it’s the way of the world.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Way of the World” by Theresa Rebeck
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library and Theatre
201 East Capitol St. SE
Call: (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu
Playing through Feb. 11