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The Beaux' Strategem Is a Hit-and-Miss Endeavor at HFAC

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The setup:

Prolific playwright Ken Ludwig is a master of farces, and has a string of award nominations and many wins, to prove it - you may have seen Lend Me a Tenor or his musical Crazy for You, both Broadway hits that are widely done. Thornton Wilder - bear with me for the backstory - in 1939 began to update a 1707 Restoration comedy by George Farquhar, and finished about half of it. In the summer of 2004, the Estate of Thornton Wilder asked Ken Ludwig to complete the play, and Ludwig, delighted, did so.

While many contemporary farces use a thin idea (mistaken identity, et al.) which the actors flesh out with invention and body language, the three playwrights involved here have given us a farce rich in plot complexities, as was usual for 18th century comedies such as She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal. With a large cast and demanding roles, the Houston Family Arts Center has shown courage in mounting this production of The Beaux' Stratagem.

The execution:

Two young bucks have spent their available funds on riotous living in London, and set out on the road to improve their fortunes by courting wealthy women. One is disguised as a lord, one a footman serving the other, to suggest affluence - they switch roles in each township. The two major settings are a country inn and the lavish estate of Lady Bountiful, which houses two attractive young women. One is already married, but her husband is inattentive, leaving her anxious for male companionship.

It's an axiom of theater that tragedy is easy, while comedy is hard, and there are enough misfires in this production to suggest this adage is true. But, first, here is the good news. The costumes designed by Amber Stepanik are elaborate and beautiful. There is an extended fight scene, with a lot of dueling and unladylike kneeing of men, that is amusingly choreographed by Johnny Ringo. The very gifted Patrick Barton plays a drunken upper-class wastrel, the inattentive husband, with captivating joy.

The upper-class ladies are beautiful, with Sarah McQueen providing an interesting spunky take on Mrs. Kate Sullen, the unhappily-wed wife of the sot, and Cora Hemphill adding youthful allure to Dorinda, wealthy heiress, though I wish her wig didn't match her pink dress.

Justin Finch plays Jack Archer, the rake serving as temporary footman, and comes within shouting distance of giving a gifted performance. I liked him a lot, and Finch has talent, and charm, but there is a lot of overacting on this stage, which can be contagious, and too often Finch is seduced into it. He did seem to be over-dressed in finery, since he is masquerading as a footman who has to groom the horses.

His companion in intended amorous swindling is Tom Aimwell, played by Josh Clark, who inexplicably speaks in an arch, affected manner, whines with petulance, and seems the least likely candidate for a lady to fall for. He wears glasses, and peers over them with disdain at, well, almost everything. Instead of a rake on a joyous romp, Clark seems to envision the character as a pompous prig.

The work is directed by Lisa Garza, who has seemingly permitted the actors to go off the reservation at will. Matt Hudson plays Gloss, a highwayman robber who is also a chaplain, with the opportunity to amuse us by switching back and forth between these two very different characterizations. Instead, he plays them both the same, wears far too much eye makeup, and marches downstage to orate to the audience.

Adrian Collison plays Boniface, the innkeeper, who is also a scoundrel and in league with the highwaymen, but we see none of this conniving duplicity - Collinson plays him as a likable neighborly type. Brendis O'Sullivan plays Cherry, Boniface's daughter, and there is meant to be a sexual flirtation between her and Archer, but it never gets convincingly off the ground.

Tad Howington plays Sir Charles Freeman, Kate's brother. He enters late, and is convincing in his role, though needlessly cheerless. Ananka Kohnitz plays, without much subtlety, the wealthy Lady Bountiful, who thinks she has the power to heal. I quite liked Richard Hahn as her servant Scrub, though removing his wig to fan himself gets its intended cheap laugh. Doug Pfaffenberger plays the priest Foigard, and seems too aware that he is a figure of fun, though the role does get laughs.

Innkeeper Collinson's flat performance and slow delivery in the opening scenes launch the comedy with a fizzle, though the pace gets better in Act Two. But Clark's bewildering interpretation of Aimwell is a continuing flaw that robs the play of vitality. I've seen Clark perform well in other productions, so the responsibility here may lie with director Garza.

The verdict:

A comedy rich in plot and vivid characterizations has been saved from oblivion by an adaptation from award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. HFAC provides a lavish, well-costumed production, and finds many of the laughs, but misses the boat with some less-than-ideal acting choices. The Beaux' Stratagem continues through June 15, at the Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Road. For information or ticketing, call 281-685-6374 or contact www.houstonfac.com.

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