Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” is most often called “a restoration comedy.” The reality is more complicated. The play was written in 1773, more than a century after the restoration of the monarchy in Britain (1660). And secondly, the bulk of the comedies written at the time fall into a category scholars refer to as “sentimental comedies.”
But Goldsmith and fellow writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan (who wrote “The School for Scandal” and “The Rivals” in 1775) rejected sentiment and offered what was called “the laughing comedies.” These works tried to shun romantic love, instead preferring nimble wit and social skills, and “She Stoops to Conquer falls within these guidelines. It remains a popular play to this day and McCarter Theater is currently staging a most welcome revival — faithful to the period, yet surprisingly modern, fast-paced, colorful, and verbally delicious.
The plot is a thicket of mistaken identities, tumbling at times into full farce. A wealthy country squire, Mr. Hardcastle (played with a sly sense of pomposity by veteran actor Paxton Whitehead), arranges for his daughter, Kate (Jessica Stone, complete with a mischievous understanding of what is needed to attract the male of the species), to meet Charles Marlow (Jon Patrick Walker), son of a wealthy aristocrat. The obvious plan is that the pair will fall in love and marry. Marlow, however, has an affliction — intense nervousness when confronted with upper-class ladies; the complete opposite when meeting lower-class women. Kate, naturally enough, figures all this out and “stoops below her position,” posing as a barmaid, to entice the young man.
Now that you have the concept of the title of the work, add a sub-plot. Hardcastle’s second wife (Kristine Nielsen, in a portrayal that can be handled to excess, but here is played just to the lip without ever flowing over) is determined that her not-too-brilliant son, Tony Lumpkin (Brooks Ashmanskas, in a role that sometimes is played in drag and here is nicely handled as a bumptious but teachable lad — with joy and gusto), shall marry her niece, Constance Neville (Rebecca Brooksher). Meanwhile, Constance is planning to elope with a fine young gentleman, George Hastings (Jeremy Webb).
As is usual in plays of this era, things get much more complicated, expecially when Marlow and Hastings confuse the Hardcastle home with a country inn and are surprised then infuriated by the welcome they receive. In the process Tony manages to steal his mother’s jewels, hoping to speed the elopement of his rival. We should remember that the original title of Goldsmith’s play was “Mistakes of the Night.”
Nicholas Martin has directed at a sprightly pace, as indeed he must, lest the audience be permitted too much time to catch up with the twists and turns of the tale. Surprisingly, the evening never seems rushed and the actors clearly have great fun with their eccentricities, especially the characters of Tony Lumpkin and Mrs. Hardcastle. And control is never tossed aside so that the performance never sags. David Korins’ set is both functional and extremely intricate, with plenty of nooks and crannies, a large stairway to the second floor, and enough doors so that one might expect farce to rear its head. Ben Stanton has lit it with care and Gabriel Berry has supplied costumes of the period, some with considerable flair.
Goldsmith’s attempt to avoid sentimental comedy was not always followed by later playwrights and eventually on both sides of the Atlantic, we dissolved into melodrama. But this production is a rare opportunity to see a rather unique work, toasted to a fine veneer and presented in real style.
“She Stoops to Conquer”, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, November 1. Comedy about mistaken identities by Oliver Goldsmith. $20 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.