From early Roman comedy through Shakespeare and beyond, the comic stage has made much of mistaken identity fostered by disguise, but Ferenc Molnár’s 1910 play The Guardsman, now receiving a lively staging at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, takes the trope in a compelling new direction: what if one’s disguise fools one’s self? The disguise removed, does one still have access to the interior life of the false construction brought to life in disguise?
These are some of the loftier questions invited by a play that is mostly a fun romantic comedy about love, desire, and distrust. The Actor (Jon Barker, to whose character Molnár gives no name) and Hélène, the Actress (Victoria Mack) are an entertainment power couple in Budapest, both among the most respected performers of their day. However they have been married for a year, and things are growing stagnant. Hélène has a history of loving-them-and-leaving-them, and so The Actor worries that he is next in line to be discarded. But he is not one to be thrust aside quietly. He has hatched an elaborate plan that casts himself in what he calls his most terrifying role: inventing and impersonating a soldier – the eponymous Guardsman – through whom he has been corresponding with and courting Hélène (we learn all this in an scene of long and clunky exposition, an early signal that this is a wordier play than it need be). The occasion of the play is the evening his plan will come to a head, and The Actor will find out for himself whether or not Hélène will remain faithful.
The play hinges on the comedy of dramatic irony: we know The Actor is the Guardsman, but Hélène does not, and we watch along with The Actor to see if Hélène will succumb to the invented character’s advances. There is much to laugh about and enjoy from the privileged position of audience knowing how the trick is being executed, and Barker does an excellent job of vacillating between the suave Guardsman in the company of Hélène and the perpetually nervous Actor when she is offstage. Molnár provides a character named Mezei (Brent Harris) who seems little more than a sounding board in lieu of a play full of soliloquy, but Harris does well to bring him to life. The production’s best performance comes from Mack, who fills Hélène with grace and confidence even when it seems she is the unwitting mark in an elaborate scheme. There are of course two great actors in this marriage, and Hélène will not be made a fool of quite so easily. Mack admirably succeeds in making Hélène assertive and poised without drifting into the easy parody of diva.