The Way of the World
Written by William Congreve
Directed by Blake Spraggins
At North House
Through this weekend
IF you didn't sleep through the English 10 lecture on Restoration comedies, you may remember that William Congreve was a successful and respected playwright until his play The Way of the World failed miserably, and he retired from the stage in shame and defeat. If you watch the North House production of World, you will understand why.
World employs two common themes of Restoration comedies: courtly manners and the difficulties of love. There is a great deal of witty dialogue and a plot involving a series of deceptions and betrayals that eventually lead to a union of two lovers. Unfortunately, the two pages of background information included in the program do little to aid the audience's constant struggle to figure out who is doing what to whom and why.
I will spare the actors the embarrassment of printing their names, for they have obviously spent a great deal of time learning their difficult lines, though at the expense of characterization and expression in their delivery. The combination of the play's 17th century courtly language and the actors' annoying fake English accents renders the dialogue unintelligible. The performances are without energy. Decent jokes are lost to mumbled deliveries. When speaking, the actors face every direction except toward the audience. And while any actor speaks, any other actors onstage stand around awkwardly with nothing to do.
In an attempt to utilize effectively the space of the North House Dining Hall. director Blake Spraggins often stages scenes simultaneously on the upper and lower levels, with less than successful results. Actors meander aimlessly through the audience, pretending not to notice a love song being performed above them. The clatter of actors fumbling with props on the upper level disrupts speech on the lower level. In the final scene, most of the dialogue crucial to the resolution of the plot cannot rise above the noise of stomping feet, as the actors chase each other all over the stage.
The costuming and the musical selections are equally unsuccessful. Apparently Spraggins intends to resolve the disparities he has created in moving the setting of the play from 1700 to the present by turning World into theater of the absurd. Thus, the actors dress according to the personality of their characters, which might have been a helpful and amusing device, had the execution been less haphazard. Most of the costumes either add nothing in the way of characterization or worse, create an image that is incongruous with the characters. The musical interludes, which range from Billie Holiday to George Michael, are meaningless and inapproprate to the plot.
Several of the actors might have given better performances in a less complicated play. Many of the problems with plot development are the result of the deletion of some of the scenes and the condensation of some of the roles. Actor Roger Travis has to play two roles, and he does an admirable job of dashing onstage to deliver lines and offstage to change costume and character, but which part he is playing at any given moment still remains confusing.
While The Way of the World fails as comedy and stumbles as a romance, it does succeed as a mystery: what led Spraggins to attempt such a difficult play, a play that ruined Congreve himself? Alas, history repeats itself.