The Gentleman Dancing-Master
nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
November 20, 2005
The holidays come early this year to Theatre 80 St. Marks, where the Pearl Theatre Company is presenting the American professional premiere of The Gentleman Dancing-Master, William Wycherley’s 1672 Restoration comedy about affectation, parenthood, and good old-fashioned red-blooded common sense. In that sense it’s as timely today as it was 333 years ago, and the Pearl does a splendid, entertaining job in its handsome and elegant production.
The plot somewhat defies description, but here goes: Hippolyta is a 14-year-old girl who has been confined to her house for the past year as her father, James Formal, a wine merchant, travels the continent in search of a husband for her. The best he’s been able to come up with is his nephew, a France-obsessed, couture-mad fop. Meeting him for the first time, Hippolyta is desperate for another option and through a clever scheme manages to ensnare Mr. Gerrard, a handsome, dashing young London gentleman. Gerrard is pressed into service as Hippolyta’s dancing-master when her father, as crazed for Spanish Puritanism as his nephew is crazed for Parisian foppery, returns to London to oversee the marriage. The whole thing ends in a crazed festival of swordplay, convincingly arranged by David DeBesse, but have no fear—everything comes out all right in the end.
If you think girls grow up fast these days, you should have been around in 1672. The clever Hippolyta, played charmingly here by Marsha Stephanie Blake, manages to wrap cousin, father, and suitor around her little finger as she seeks happiness with the dashing Mr. Gerrard (Bradford Cover) and escape from a doomed engagement to Monsieur de Paris (a smashingly funny Sean McNall, who manages nonetheless to find a hint of desperate melancholy in the deluded young man). Dan Daily, as Hippolyta’s pitiless but similarly ridiculous father, convincingly draws all attention as he struts his way across the stage, unaware of the lascivious shenanigans going on all around him even as his sister, the wiser Mrs. Caution (Robin Leslie Brown), warns him against the sham dance instructor. Michele Vazquez, John Livingstone Rolle, Heather Girardi, Rachel Botchan, and Ryland Blackinton fill out the attractive cast.
Director Gus Kaikkonen keeps the stage briskly hopping as he finds the theatrical possibilities in this language-rich text (which is performed nearly uncut, quite an accomplishment itself), and he is well-supported by a team of richly talented designers (Devon Painter for the costumes, Stephen Petrilli for the lights, and Susan Zeeman Rogers for the set) and Jane Shaw’s period-appropriate original music.
Restoration comedy, exemplified by the plays of Sheridan and Wycherley’s own more familiar The Country Wife, has a reputation for being … well, slow and mannered, to put it politely. The Pearl’s production of The Gentleman Dancing-Master demonstrates that, with the right cast and under the sensitive hand of an insightful director, these plays can have all of the energy and relevance of a contemporary farce. If you’re looking for a delightful theatrical confection with which to start your holiday celebration, look no further than the Pearl’s current production.