From left, Caitlin Muelder, Jeremy Shamos, & Nicole Lowrance in Engaged at the Lucille Lortel.
Somewhere in this universe there may be a more cynical play than W. S. Gilberts Engaged, but none as wickedly, deliciously funny from first to last. Everybody in it is purely venal all the way through to the core, while spouting the utmost romantic and ethical nonsense.
is Mrs. Macfarlane, the mother of fair Maggie, talking at rise of curtain to a braw bonnie Scots lad named Angus Macalister:
Thourt a gude lad, and its been the hope of my widowed auld heart to see you twain one. Thoult treat her kindly I ken that weel. Thourt a prosperous kirk-going man, and my Meg should be a happy lass indeed. Bless thee, Angus, bless thee!
And here is Maggie:
Why Angus, thourt tall, and fair, and brave. Thoust a gude, honest face, and a gude, honest hairt, which is mair precious than a the gold on earth! . . . [W]ha am I that I should say that a these blessings are not enough for me. If thou, gude, brave, honest man, will be troubled wi sic a puir little humble mousie as Maggie Mcfarlane, why, shell just be the proudest and happiest lassie in a Dumfries.
And here is Angus:
Yes, Im a fairly prosperous man. What wi farmin a bit land . . . and a bit o poachin now and again: and what wi my illicit whusky still and throwin trains off the line, that the poor distracted passengers may come [and fork up pounds and shillings for lodging], Ive mair ways than one of making an honest living and Ill work then a nicht and day for my bonnie Meg!
And then the train goes off the track, and the scene starts buzzing with well-born, well-dressed de-trained passengers like rich young Cheviot, who is madly in love with a London debutante named Minnie my whole life, my whole soul and body, my Past, my Present, and my To Come until he takes one look at puir little luscious Maggie, throws his arms around her, a plants a kiss upon her, and ardently proclaims her my Past, my Present, my Future . . . my own To Come.
Then theres Belinda Treherne, who swears to the man in her life, a certain Belvawney: I love you with an imperishable ardor which mocks the power of words. If I were to begin to tell you now of the force of my indomitable passion for you, the tomb would close over me before I could exhaust the entrancing subject.
However, there is one slight hitch. [B]usiness is business, and, says Miss Treherne, unless I can see some distinct probability that your income will be permanent, I shall have no alternative but to weep my heart out in all the anguish of maiden solitude uncared for, unloved, and alone!
Well, yes, says Doug Hughes, director of the Theatre for a New Audiences production thats packing the Lortel, on Christopher Street, with laughter, to an extended May 23 yes, these characters are all venal, yet the thing that drives each and every one of them is eagerness for sex, for love, for money. Which is an eagerness most familiar to all of us.
I cannot think of a more different piece of theater than the one Hughes searingly directed at MCC eight years ago, Tim Blake Nelsons The Grey Zone, a look into hell as the Sonnderkommando of able-bodied Jews themselves doomed shovel corpses from the gas chambers into the furnaces of Auschwitz.
Since then, Doug Hughes has done a lot of other directing, and ran New Havens Long Wharf Theater for four years, and just at this moment has another tough new winner on the boards in Frozen, an Off-Broadway body-blow conveyed uptown from (again) MCC to Broadways Circle-in-the-Square.
The job of directing Engaged came to him through a different body blow. On December 30, 2003, the man who was to stage this show, Gerald Guterriez, died suddenly and unexpectedly in his Brooklyn home at age 53.
By chance, Doug Hughes said during a tech rehearsal at the Lortel a few weeks ago, I met with Gerry on December 22 on another topic entirely. He died a week later. Gerry spoke to me about this work, and after he died, Jeffrey Horowitz [artistic director, Theatre for a New Audience] called me up.
The notion was to dedicate the production to Geralds memory. He had chosen half the cast and the designers. Gerald had got to know of the play a year ago. Stanley Kauffmann and some other drama critic, Im not sure which, were great fans of Engaged and had brought it to Jeffreys attention.
When I was told about it I thought to myself: Why dont I know this play? I know The Way of the World and The Rivals and She Stoops to Conquer and the Granville Barker plays, and Id known W.S. Gilberts one-act Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in which Hamlet is only in the background so why dont I know this play?
And then I read it, and was fascinated by it. I read reviews of its 1927 [actually 1925] New York production. One review said: Theres nothing like this in New York and that was 45, 50 years after the play was first produced in London [in 1877, at the Haymarket].
Satire can very easily go out of style. Not on this occasion.
W.S. Gilbert had to play second fiddle to the more socially favored Sir Arthur Sullivan most of his professional life, but he was at least as great a creator, and the whole of Engaged is almost synthesized in two of his lines from H.M.S. Pinafore:
Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream . . .
And now, a journalist muttered, it isnt even called skim milk any more. Its called fat free milk.
Doug Hughes burst into a laugh. Yes, he said. Very apt.
We can know, Hughes says, that Engaged was clearly read pretty carefully by Oscar Wilde, whose Importance of Being Ernest came 18 years lager.
The false Tobacco Road-type Scots characters make mock of the idea that country people are incapable of impure (or impuir) thoughts.
Well, no human being is incapable of impure thoughts. We have them all the time, says man-of-the-theater Hughes, or thered be nothing to put on stage.
Hes a man of the theater in more than one way: He was born into it. Doug Hughes is one of the two sons of Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, distinguished actors both. It was at the Long Wharf that he met his wife, Lynn Fusco, whos in the real-estate business.
Sitting there in a seat in the Lortel while the techies went about their business, he waved a hand vaguely westward.
Thats where I went to school, he said. St. Lukes. Right across the street.
Like every other New York school kid, including the journalist in question, Hughes had had Gilbert & Sullivan operettas worked into his pores. He didnt know about Engaged or all that exegesis in cynicism: Sex, love, and money our Past, our Present, and our To Come.