There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who click on that Gossip Girl blog posting with wild abandon despite the spoiler alert and the kind who carefully maneuver around so they can fully enjoy the guilty pleasure of a quiet evening at home with Tivo, Blake Lively and Chace Crawford.
It’s folks in the latter category who skip the helpful, highly detailed synopsis often included in the program books of plays of a certain type — the type that involve wigs and elaborate gowns and individuals who deliver rhyming asides to the audience that are the 18th century equivalent of ”take my wife, please.” (Sometimes literally.)
It’s fitting really, because Gossip Girl and even the new (admittedly addictive but tragically inferior to the original) Beverly Hills 90210 owe a great deal to these scandal-dredged stage plays. Take William Congreve’s The Way of the World, now at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. A funny and almost impossibly complex scramble of double-dealing, shady alliances and adulterous affairs, Congreve’s play is an elaborately dressed, primetime soap opera. You simply get an entire season in the course of a couple of hours.
And OMG, it’s a very good thing.
Mirabell (Christopher Innvar) is in love with Millamant (Veanne Cox), whom he cannot be with because Millamant needs the approval of her aunt, the Lady Wishfort (Nancy Robinette), or else she will lose half her inheritance. Wishfort despises Mirabell because he once pretended to be in love with her for sport. Meanwhile, Mirabell’s friend Fainall (Andrew Long) is cheating on his wife with a woman named Marwood (Deanne Lorette) who is also in love with Mirabell and, if it were available at the time, would most certainly have been responsible for creating some anonymous, snarky blog about her well-heeled circle.
And that doesn’t even touch on the secret marriage, the return of a long-absent brother and a threatened family estate.
Way of the World‘s knotted plot gradually untangles itself on an elegant series of crisp white and gold sets designed by Wilson Chin. Restrained and smartly edited, they are the perfect backdrop for Jane Greenwood’s ornate costumes. Like Chin, Greenwood also holds to a tight color palate, this time of rich greens — from moss to deep emerald to a cool and satisfying turquoise. Combined, the effect is striking and memorable.
It also ensures that full attention is placed on the wonderful cast director Michael Kahn has gathered. Despite the intricacy of language and story, Kahn has briskly paced the show to its great benefit. There is a lightness to the production, a pleasant sense of complete command and control.
Outstanding in her complete command and control of her character is Nancy Robinette. An outsized presence in a role that allows her to be nothing less, Robinette’s Lady Wishfort is bold and loud and delightfully bawdy. She finds her equal comic match in Floyd King’s fawning pansy Anthony Witwould and his remarkably ill-tempered companion Petulant, wonderfully brought to life by J. Fred Shiffman.
Rounding things out, and bringing a bit of weight to the goings on are Long, Innvar, Cox and Lorette. The actors fare brilliantly in their roles as the play’s scheming heart. Cox and Lorette’s characters’ properly contained hatred of one another is particularly well done and actually leads to one of the play’s most humorous moments.
Dragging things down, unfortunately, is Barbara Garrick’s portrayal of Mrs. Fainall. Wooden and starkly contrasting with the ease and obvious fun being had by her fellow cast members, Garrick is a distraction and feels completely out of place.
Take a night, step away from the television and check in with the original gossip girls in The Way of the World. You won’t regret it — though you might want to keep that synopsis close by.