Written in 1705, Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset Table refers to a now-unfashionable game, one with complex rules and obscure French terms. I’ve read over the rules a couple times now and still cannot make any sense of it, except that at the height of its popularity in England, it was nearly banned because of its potential to destroy a family’s wealth. Despite the round of basset in its second half, familiarity with the game is not necessary to enjoy The Folger Theatre’s production of The Gaming Table, which takes Centlivre’s text and adds cheerfully cynical flourishes.
Four women are at the center of the play, each with a different perspective on love and Restoration values. Lady Reveller (Julie Jesneck) is having the time of her life; she loves basset and the attention of men, and is careful to hide her reserves of emotion. Her friend Mrs. Sago (Tonya Beckman Ross) will sometimes cheat, and her foppish husband (Darius Pierce) is happy to provide her bank roll. Lady Lucy (Katie deBuys) is relatively moral – she thinks all gambling is needless waste – which annoys Sir James (Michael Milligan), the dandy who loves her. Then there’s Valeria (Emily Trask), an aspiring scientist who prefers dissecting a greyhound over the company of others. The women would be perfectly happy to live without interferences, but romantic complications and a cranky uncle (Michael Willis) keep getting in their way.
A steadfast commitment to its lighthearted tone, coupled with different styles of humor, is what keeps The Gaming Table moving at a steady clip. Even when the uncle repeatedly calls his niece a hussy, there’s the sense his condemnation is never meant to be taken seriously. Instead, director Eleanor Holdridge and her cast focus on the tight script. They never waste an opportunity for a gag – whether it’s punny wordplay or a pratfall – and the strategy of joke saturation consistently works. The eye-popping costumes (beautifully designed by Jessica Ford) only add to the infectious silliness. Clearly the best way to make a buffoon appear more idiotic is to put him in a powdered wig.
The cast succeeds by either embracing the past or standing outside the material. As the servant Alpiew, Emily Townley takes a supporting character and gives her depth with a steady, world-weary gaze. When the characters/relationships are still confusing at the start, Townley’s terrific asides are critical to keeping the story afloat. Pierce’s Mr. Sago is another stand-out, albeit in a wildly different way. His entrances and exits are terrific moments of physical comedy, as are his go-for-broke broad humor, which make him a classic fool.
But for all the strong supporting roles, the four principal women are the stars of The Gaming Table. Katie deBuys, who was terrific in Wooly Mammoth’s production of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, finds comedy even if she is the play’s moral center. With a shock of dark hair and familiar voice, deBuys almost sounds like the Restoration equivalent of Alison Brie’s character in Community. Jesneck and Ross are the cheerily ribald characters, and their riff on 18th century values is rebellious despite its familiarity. Yet it is Trask’s Valeria who quickly becomes an audience favorite; peering through glasses, her enthusiastic love of philosophy make her an intriguing, boisterous antithesis to what the others represent.
Unlike many classic comedies, there are parts of The Gaming Table that caught me by surprise. When I thought I’d seen all the play had to offer, a well-timed dick joke had the audience roaring with laughter. And amidst the chuckles, there are still opportunities to admire the surreal, Escher-esque staircases that dominate the set. In his modifications of the original play, writer David Grimm adds a new introduction and conclusion. The new, post-modern epilogue reverses the typical end to Restoration comedies, which usually contain an affirmation of obsolete values. Spoken by the play’s most wicked character, the epilogue is the pitch-perfect way to inspire enthusiastic applause. Grimm’s additions and updates are crucial to the play’s success. Through his rewrites and Centlivre’s wit, it’s downright refreshing to have a classic romantic comedy full of free-thinking women, especially since the men, all effeminate dandies, happily make themselves the butt of the joke.
The Gaming Table is at The Folger Theatre until March 4. Buy tickets here!