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Guard Yourself 

A stock plot worthy of a sitcom leaves this musical flat

Wednesday, Dec 27 2000
Every few months, it seems, a lull in the cycle of new shows forces me out to a distant town for a musical. Last August it was In the Beginning, which I'm afraid I lost my temper over, and this month it's Enter the Guardsman, a new musical based on Ferenc Molnár's 1911 erotic comedy about two married Viennese actors (The Guardsman).

Molnár's play is a warhorse. Its opera-derived plot could also drive a sitcom, and The Guardsman did well in America during the '40s and '50s (when it was adapted as a musical as well as a movie). The hero, a jealous husband and an actor, disguises himself as an Austrian guardsman to test his wife's fidelity. I've heard that Molnár's script can still evoke a sad and subtle melancholy, but it also lends itself to broad farce, which is the trap Scott Wentworth and Craig Bohmler jump into with both feet in their new adaptation playing at the San Jose Rep.

The stock plot starts with a stock marital problem: The Actor and Actress are sexually bored. They play opposite one another in some long-running show in belle epoque Vienna, and during one performance, between acts, they meet backstage to trade peremptory lines about not just how the show is going but also the state of their marriage. Then they lapse into some off-tune singing about the lost magic of "The First Night."

The Actor, sensing his wife's flagging affection, sends her anonymous bouquets of roses. The notion of a secret admirer inflames her imagination. When he sends an anonymous card suggesting a rendezvous, she accepts. The Actor finds a reason to "leave town," and dresses up as a dashing epauletted guardsman, with polished boots and a long, suggestive saber. The Actress succumbs, and then there's marital fallout, not to mention confusion. (Did she cheat on him, or not?)

Hovering around the action is a Svengali-like Playwright, played by Peter Van Norden, who narrates, participates, and takes notes. He's the clearest character on the stage. Van Norden does a capable job with his dashing snootiness and comic self-irony, and one scene showing the Playwright agonizing over how the story should end is even funny. ("They die," he sings.)

Every other character has been rolled out of the warehouse like a costume dummy. David Ledingham's Actor is a bumbling cuckold; Suzan Hanson's Actress is a proud but weak-kneed diva; Meg Mackay's Dresser, attending her costumes, is full of worldly, auntlike advice; Laurent Giroux's Wigs Master is a tintype Theater Homosexual, frilled with innuendo meant to flatter a suburban audience. Not that anyone does a noticeably bad job with these roles, although Ledingham's voice does slip out of tune. The material is simply flat.

Mackay does have a pretty ballad, called "Waiting in the Wings," which shows the Dresser growing rueful about her younger days as a leading actress. She sings with real tenderness, but the Dresser just isn't enough of a character for the song to matter. It should, for all dramatic purposes, be cut.

The liveliest part of the whole show is "The Actor's Fantasy," a schizophrenic duet between the Actor as husband and the Actor as guardsman, wearing full soldier garb, before the rendezvous, in his dressing room. The Actor as husband has a vision of romantic success, which actually means failure, as the guardsman, to seduce the Actress. As he juggles two voices he falls around the room in a fit of pathetic neurosis. It's the only real scene of energetic farce, and the only scene that made me laugh.

Lillian Garrett-Groag directed last summer's excellent Taming of the Shrew at the California Shakespeare Festival, and wrote The Magic Fire, which played in Berkeley two years ago. Why she directed this I have no idea, unless it was to give set designer Kent Dorsey something interesting to do. (His art nouveau dressing rooms and scrims that look like brick walls are excellent.) Because, unfortunately, Marion Adler's lyrics are empty and dull; Scott Wentworth's dialogue is functional and ordinary; and Craig Bohmler's music is facile, with simple repetitive lines and waltz beats worked in wherever possible.

Enter the Guardsman is a "chamber musical," meaning it has an eight-member cast and an eight-member orchestra. Packing up such a small production can be done on the cheap. After world-premiering in 1997 the show actually ran for a year on the Queen Elizabeth 2, which had the honor of being "the first cruise ship to ever produce a full musical," according to Bohmler. Money considerations, in fact, may go a long way toward explaining all the deadwood. The soul of this Guardsman feels mercenary.


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