MRS., LADY, AND MISS: Carpentier, Kenner, and Olson.
Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem was written more than two centuries ago as a snarky commentary on fellow-Brit George Farquhar’s The Beaux’s Stratagem, which was written three centuries ago. The current 2nd Story Theatre production (through August 30) — with slit-eyed coaching from the playwright — manages to make the message as familiar as yesterday.
The earlier play is sympathetic toward two young aristocrats who waste their inheritances and hope to get back to their entitled normalcy by finding wealthy wives. Cowley had a different idea of what should be normal. So we see an imperious new husband given a reality check by his young wife; a finicky fiancé taught a lesson about patience by his clever betrothed; and — the cherry on top — a conscienceless seducer given his humiliating just desserts.
The most intricate relationship is that of Doricourt (Patrick Poole) and his bride-to-be, Letitia (Gabby Sherba). He is rich and handsome and therefore has been the male equivalent of the belle of the ball among the eligible young women of his class. He has arranged to marry the socially suitable Letitia without having met her more than once. In that encounter she was trying to be quiet and demure, so he found her rather dull. She complains to a confidant, Mrs. Racket (Sharon Carpentier), that he seemed bored at their meeting. Preferring to marry someone rapturously in love with her, she decides to make him fall head over heels at a masquerade ball by displaying the vivacious side of her personality, in disguise,
Sherba’s performance as a transformed Letitia is the high point of the evening. Make that performances. As the mystery woman at the ball, dressed seductively in black, she is convincingly entrancing. The playwright gives her wittiness, Sherba gives her intelligence, and director Ed Shea gives it all time to sink in. But it’s when Letitia pretends to be a jabbering, all-but-gum-chewing twit — under her own identity, to further test Doricourt — that she’s hilarious. The New Yawk accent, the animated gestures, the machine-gun patter. Hilarious.
The stern young husband-in-training is Sir George Touchwood (Dillon Medina), who has just married Lady Frances (Ashley Kenner), who is fresh from the country and as yet unspoiled by city sophisticates. That’s how he wants her to stay — he’s always at her side and discourages visitors. That won’t do for Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle (Erin Olson), who insist on showing Lady Frances the town. Her husband/warden is furious, but she’s instructed to not back down, lest a precedent be set.
It’s on this ramble that the womanizing Courtall (Jamie Dufault) marks her as his next target. At first Lady Frances is offended that he is flirting with a woman he knows is married, but when she realizes that Mrs. Racket is an acquaintance of his, social order is restored and she reverts to politeness. But not all the men in this play are fools or rakes. When Courtall’s friend Saville (Coleman Crenshaw) realizes that Courtall is serious about ruining this woman, he and Mrs. Racket conspire to teach him a fitting lesson. His reputation as a cosmopolitan ladies’ man is everything to him, so having Courtall earn a reputation as an easily tricked fool is just what justice requires.