Actors take British comedy over the top

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Michael Toscano

Megan Dominy plays wealthy pickle fortune heiress Helen Hayle, and Tricia McCauley is acid-tongued widow Maria Wislack in Washington Stage Guild’s production of the 1920s comedy On Approval.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Go have a nice dinner before this show and eschew dessert at the restaurant. Rather, you should consider On Approval, the airy confection now onstage at Washington Stage Guild, your sweet course.

This 1927 comedy from the once-popular, but now largely forgotten, British playwright Frederick Lonsdale, is — as desserts should be — a trifle that momentarily delights, doesn’t leave you with much to digest, and then pleasantly melts away.  

Lonsdale was a forerunner of Noel Coward, but with a less acidic wit and softer dialogue. Lonsdale’s view of British aristocracy in its twilight years is less trenchant than Coward’s, but if played broadly and with a light touch, it can be quite amusing.

Coward’s work, such as in Private Lives, can be enjoyed by reading the material. But this Lonsdale play relies almost entirely on its execution on the stage to be funny. And under Steven Carpenter’s deft direction, the Stage Guild makes it work. It is funny, it is charming, and at the end, it pleasantly melts away.

However, I must take exception with Washington Stage Guild Artistic Director Bill Largess, who writes this in the promotional material: “Lonsdale’s sharp, cutting outlook is expressed in some of the funniest dialogue written in the 20th century. That alone makes it a perfect fit for the Stage Guild’s focus on plays of language and wit.”

It simply is not some of the funniest dialogue written in the 1900s. The rudimentary plot is but a mere vehicle for silly, broad characterizations. It can be some of the funniest dialogue performed when the actors go over the top and wallow in over-ripe, plummy accents and attitude. And that is what they mostly do here to great effect.

A tale of two couples

Here’s the recipe for this confection: First, take two women in London’s ritzy Mayfair. One is Mrs. Maria Wislack (Tricia McCauley), a somewhat forbidding presence as a wealthy, acid-tongued widow. The other is Helen Hayle (Megan Dominy), her young friend, the even-richer heiress to a pickle fortune. (Richer, and much more pleasant and much less cynical.)

Maria is distrustful of marriage after being disappointed by her late husband. Helen, on the other hand, believes in love and has a much sunnier, sweeter disposition.

Now, add two men. Helen is besotted with the insolvent but haughty George, Duke of Bristol (Dylan Myers), who knows he must marry himself back into wealth or face bankruptcy. His money problems are caused, it seems, “by women,” of course, and by “horses without ambition.”

Maria, meanwhile, is intrigued by the affections of a dedicated suitor, the long-adoring Richard Halton (Paul Edward Hope), who has an income of 300 pounds a year ($23,011 in today’s dollars), compared to Maria’s 25,000 pounds (more than $1.9 million).

Mix the two couples and see who ends up with whom, and for how long, and how the matters of money and class play out in the stratified society in which the characters live.

The mechanism for the mixing is Maria’s contention that she needs to prove to herself that her admiring Richard, who seems as nice as can be, is actually suitable husband material.

So she demands a sort-of marriage “on approval” — a month-long stay at her remote Scottish estate for the two of them. When the Duke contrives to accompany his pal Richard to Scotland to help him win Maria’s hand permanently, Helen sees her opportunity and tags along. Subsequent plot twists can be immediately guessed.

With servants conveniently, if clumsily, absent, the couples are left to their own devices and, quite predictably, soon begin to wear on each other. A great snowstorm further affects the outcome.

This version, staged in two acts rather than three, seems to end differently from some earlier stage versions. A couple of movies and even TV presentations also diverge somewhat.

You may or may not be entirely happy with the abrupt conclusion here. But it doesn’t really matter, as it is the journey and not the destination that is important. All that matters is how much fun the actors create camping it up and playing it solely for laughs.

Bringing the characters to life

The night this show was reviewed, actor Dylan Myers was called away, and director Steve Carpenter took his place as the Duke. The script he was holding was almost unnoticeable, with his graceful, colorful and thorough portrayal.

More than the other actors, Carpenter reveled in the elegant accent, biting into each word and savoring it. Carpenter nudged his performance over the top, but not so far over that he lost the man’s humanity. In fact, his work allowed for some subtle shadings which paid divideands in later scenes, dividends that would not be realized with a paler performance. It’s a fine example to be followed by Myers.

Carpenter and Hope handled some of their scenes together as if they were in a ping-pong match, tossing their dialogue back and forth at each other with increasing, staccato speed.

Likewise, Megan Dominy’s work makes Helen’s character richer on the stage than on the page. We immediately like Helen for her open face, easy personality and apparent lack of guile. But Dominy finds a tougher inner core than might be expected, which facilitates later plot turns.

Tricia McCauley, with an uncertain and occasionally shifting accent, has less success when she works herself up into really broad and physical comedy. Her transitions between an imperious fa├žade and more revealing moments are not always convincing. But the character’s quieter moments do allow her time to offer hints of a lush sensuality, corseted by matters of class and station.

When all four are on stage together, and under Carpenter’s energetic pacing, the enterprise glides steadily forward, a gauzy dessert for eyes and ears to enjoy, if not savor.

On Approval continues through May 17, performed by Washington Stage Guild at The Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW, in Washington, D.C. The Undercroft Theatre is fully accessible and located on street level.         

Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $50 for Friday and Saturday evenings, and $40 for all other performances. Patrons 65 and over receive a $10 discount per ticket.

For tickets and more information, call (240) 582-0050 daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. or email info@stageguild.org. Tickets and information are also available online at www.stageguild.org.