Plays can succeed on the strength of a single element, such as one actor's sparkling performance, or on the merits of the text. Dorset Theatre Festival's world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's The Way of the World hits a veritable stage jackpot. This is theater at its finest and funniest. Eight talented actors, a smart and sexy script, insightful direction, and imaginative design all combine for an evening of great wit and physical comedy.
From the first sight of a martini glass held up for a refill and the first sound of pop music showing off the bass in Dorset's speakers, the audience is drawn into the indulgent languor of summer among the rich. The very rich.
Rebeck boldly lifts some plot points from William Congreve's 1700 Restoration comedy The Way of the World and deposits them in the modern-day Hamptons. Congreve's aristocrats become today's 1 percent, and the heartless negotiations of marriage contracts become callous hookups. A £6,000 dowry is a $600 million inheritance, raising similar questions about a wooer's real motivations. The parallels fall away eventually, not least to accommodate modern manners and sexual freedom, but in essence both plays concern the limitations of pleasure and the need for cunning alliances.
Rebeck's story is modern, yet it offers timeless proof that heartbreak brings out the very best in people, and the very worst. Henry, without family money, has set his sights on Mae, who has much to recommend her, none of it quite as eye-catching as her inheritance. Henry misplays his hand, however, and falls out of Mae's good graces after bedding Rene, Mae's 50-ish aunt, in a drunken escapade.
This leaves Henry at the mercy of the acerbic Charles, his gay friend who's quick to relish others' misfortunes. Their social set includes the coarse Reg, an aging partier whose wealth confers endless frat-boy summers; and Reg's older cousin Lyle. Mae's frenemy Katrina does her share of sleeping around and proves susceptible to Reg's unrefined charms. As these characters roam from restaurants to boutiques to bedrooms, a Waitress who's holding down six jobs is always there to serve them.
Each character has a secret, and each is terrific at lying to conceal it. A construction of fast-paced scenes catapults the characters from indulgence to indulgence, even as they steel themselves against sarcasm or social disappointment. But Rebeck's satire cuts deeper, and each character is forced to make a painful adjustment when life deals a blow they can't duck.
It isn't easy for a playwright to direct her own work, but Rebeck excels. She consistently gives the actors room to make the humor bigger than her words alone, and one imagines that a rich collaboration underlies this premiere. Rebeck's dialogue comes from close observation, as do her choices for movement. Characters lean, strut or prance in wobbly high heels toward the next party with arresting intensity.
As Henry, Josiah Bania has a keen eye for comfort, stretching out his legs and looking for his next drink. He's self-absorbed and stylish to a fault, but Bania equips him with a heart, as well. Elizabeth Evans, as Mae, is a spirited presence who seems to be saying exactly what she means in a world where no one else ever does.
David Turner plays Charles as a man too fascinated by other people to fall prey to world-weariness, but he's nonetheless confident that he's seen it all. He's a delight. Nilanjana Bose defines Katrina by giving her two sides: a bitter adult and a disappointed child who can't grow up.
To play Reg, Brian Dykstra tunnels straight to the heart of a man who's so brutally rich he need never mind his manners. Dykstra's all-in performance is bold and unforgettable. As Lyle, Brent Langdon has a knack for the little smiles that suggest this man can fit in anywhere. When he doesn't quite, Langdon makes us wonder how many layers this onion really has.
The only word for Kristine Nielsen's performance as Rene is "knockout." She makes her first entrance flouncing in with head bobbing and fingers pointing in the air, looking for a party. Is she ever. Nielsen's playful willingness to show Rene's every insecurity is positively exhilarating. Katie Paxton gives the Waitress' confessional remarks to the audience a wonderful freshness.
Each member of the design team contributes to a dazzling experience for the audience. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons created a stunning cubic void in Dorset's big proscenium stage, with high white walls that take on color from the startling, acidic lighting by Michael Giannitti. Most scenes are anchored with just two or three furnishings, and some décor rigidly shuttles in on little tracks.
Sound designer M.L. Dogg supplies the dance-pop sonic backdrop, music with the current formula for pure pleasure.
Barbara A. Bell's costume design captures all that is hip and much that is insecure about life in the fashion forefront. Rene, who complains, "I look so fat in everything," is at war with her clothes and in thrall to them, and Bell shows us why. The men never wear socks and always wear shirts that pose the trick question: "How much does a simple gray T-shirt cost if a guy like Henry is wearing it?" Reg appears with a different watch in every scene. Each stitch tells a story, down to the Waitress' ever-changing attire, a parade of black and white apparel designated by her various employers to prove her subservience.
The set's void is a comment on the vacuity of self-satisfied people, but it's also a painful reminder of their life's work — they ache to fill it, and merchandise is all they have. The trick of the play, though, is that you'll laugh without malice, and even with a little pity, at people who can't quite put love and money in the right order.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Beautiful Schemers"