Volume 73, Number 54 | May 12 - 18, 2004

Theater

“Engaged”
Theatre For a New Audience
at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
(212) 239-6200
Thru May 23


Production of ‘Engaged’ drawing crowds at the Lortel

By Jerry Tallmer

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. Gilbert’s “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.
Here

is Mrs. Macfarlane, the mother of fair Maggie, talking at rise of curtain to a braw bonnie Scots lad named Angus Macalister:

“Thou’rt a gude lad, and it’s been the hope of my widowed auld heart to see you twain one. Thou’lt treat her kindly — I ken that weel. Thou’rt 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, thou’rt tall, and fair, and brave. Thou’st 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, she’ll just be the proudest and happiest lassie in a’ Dumfries.”

And here is Angus:

“Yes, I’m 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], I’ve mair ways than one of making an honest living — and I’ll 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 there’s 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 Audience’s production that’s 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 Nelson’s “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 Haven’s 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 Broadway’s 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 Gerald’s 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, I’m not sure which, were great fans of ‘Engaged’ and had brought it to Jeffrey’s attention.

“When I was told about it I thought to myself: Why don’t 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 I’d known W.S. Gilbert’s one-act ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,’ in which Hamlet is only in the background — so why don’t 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: ‘There’s 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 isn’t even called skim milk any more. It’s 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 there’d be nothing to put on stage.”

He’s 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, who’s 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.

“That’s where I went to school,” he said. “St. Luke’s. 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 didn’t know about “Engaged” or all that exegesis in cynicism: Sex, love, and money — our Past, our Present, and our To Come.

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