What’s a young couple to do when they are in an arranged marriage and are about to meet for the first time?
They could simply get together, talk, and see if there’s chemistry, but that wouldn’t make for much of a play. Unless of course it was written in 1730 by the French playwright Marivaux. “The Game of Love and Chance” is a comedy in which a privileged young woman pretends to be her servant in order to observe her fiance as he really is, without all the phoniness he would surely put on for a formal meeting.
It sounds like the kind of farce that often graces the stage at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, but under Marivaux’s pen it is a more subtle comedy. The play starts slowly, but stay with it, and you’ll find yourself taken in by its language and charm.
Director Robert Thick has moved the setting up about 170 years to 1900. The play is set in the courtyard of Monsieur Orgon (Curtis Kaine) whose daughter, Silvia (Melissa Rittman), is about to meet Dorante (Austin Begley), to whom her father has arranged her to marry.
But Silvia has her doubts. She tells her maid, Lisette (Katie Munley), that simply having a husband isn’t enough, that she wants true love and wants to know what kind of man Dorante really is. Lisette has a sharp, quick mind but isn’t as deep as Silvia in matters of the heart. A husband’s a husband and Dorante is known to be wealthy and handsome — what more does Silvia need?
Silvia concocts her plan to switch places with Lisette. She seeks approval from her father, and he agrees to go along with the charade. Orgon then informs his brother, Mario (played by Robert Thick), that he received a letter from Dorante’s father explaining how Dorante had the very same idea and is switching roles with his manservant.
Soon Dorante and his servant, Harlequin (Ryan Diminick), are on the scene — and that’s when the laughs begin. Harlequin tries his best to behave like an upperclassman, but can’t keep himself from nicknaming Silvia (who he thinks is a maid) “Gorgeous,” or playfully slapping her on the rear. He apparently doesn’t even know how to properly tie his tie.
Silvia is repulsed by Harlequin but it’s love at first sight when she sees Dorante. Silvia and Dorante are both surprised to meet “servants” who are so refined and proper. Silvia doesn’t think they can be together because she believes Dorante is a common servant. Dorante is equally smitten, but isn’t about to let class differences get in the way of love.
Meanwhile, Orgon and Mario are delighting in all this confusion, as they are the only ones who know everyone’s real identities. They have some fun of their own, particularly when Mario admonishes Dorante for acting too much like a proper gentleman and speaking with “highfalutin’” language.
Language is vital to this translation by John Walters. It is not as tricky as Shakespeare but the dialogue is poetic and rhythmic, and most of the actors do quite well with it, especially after the setup is established.
Rittman is terrific as Silvia, convincingly playing an upper-class woman with a rebellious streak. She is smart and a bit stubborn but doesn’t come off as bratty or whiny, even while wearing a riding jacket and boots. Characters often address the audience, and Rittman is absolutely charming early in Act 2 after learning Dorante’s true identity and hatching a new plan.
Begley has some fine moments as her counterpoint. Dorante loves this woman who he thinks is a maid and is repulsed by the shallow Lisette, who he thinks is his betrothed. He has some great comic moments and some touching ones, such as when he lovingly stares at and sniffs his hand after managing to hold Silvia’s hand for a few seconds.
Kaine and Thick clearly have a lot fun as the wealthy and boisterous Orgon and his brother Mario. Thick stepped into role at the 11th hour after the actor originally cast in the role left the show the day before opening night. Thick held a book but he didn’t glance at it until later in the play and did so smoothly, so it wasn’t much of a distraction. And Thick is in his comfort zone, effortless with the language, delighting in the hijinks that surrounds him while always showing his character’s affection for his niece.
Munley (who is also Off-Broadstreet’s house manager) and Diminick have nice chemistry as Lisette and Harlequin, the two servants who fall in love, both thinking they’re actually snaring a member of the social elite. Munley captures Lisette’s attitude and sauciness and Diminick pulls off some of the night’s funniest lines.
As a director, Thick keeps the pace moving and the story easy to follow. That’s no easy trick with all the identity switching and the heightened language.
Thick’s set design and Ann Raymond’s costumes are among the best I’ve seen at Off-Broadstreet. The set has two levels, a patio upstairs and the courtyard downstairs with statues (one of which is a working fountain), wicker furniture, a convincing brick wall, a trellis, and foliage. Costumes range from Kaine’s natty gray suit and ascot to Lisette’s snazzy, but still maid-like, uniform.
Off-Broadstreet’s owners Bob and Julie Thick are billing their current season as one of variety, offering a mix of comedies, dramas, and musicals. An 18th-century romance is certainly something different, and this group has figured out how to make it very entertaining.
“The Game of Love and Chance,” through Saturday, March 24, Off-Broadstreet Theater, Hopewell. Performances Friday and Saturday (dessert served at 7 p.m.) at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (dessert served at 1:30 p.m.) $29.50 Fridays and Sundays; $31.50 Saturdays. 609-466-2766.