If the true way of the world is anything like Congreves’ Way of the World, then we live in confusing muddled times
. A world of strange names, deceit, love affairs, garrulous arguments and over the top schemes unfolds itself before fancy wigs and too much white face powder. This may have well been Gossip Girl of the 1700s- lying, sex, plots, money, socialites, gossip- you name it. Throw in a couple dandies and there you have it.
The characters are living the sweet life after the French-raised Charles II takes back the throne and ends the extremely non fun and boring period of puritan rule. With the French way of life in mind and those losers ousted we can focus on what’s really important: wearing elaborate clothes, flaunting ourselves, being rich, using fancy words, general disdain of the common folk, etc etc.
William Congreve knew what he was doing. He was making fun of the exact people that would show up to his performances: well to do, fashionable, London socialites of the 1700s. Kind of like how Vice magazine makes fun of its core readers: artsy, ironic, know it all, hipsters. That’s probably why “Way of the World” wasn’t a smash hit during its time. Most people were offended and then Congreve got all upset and never wrote any more plays. Sad face!!! He was making a point about the vanity, frivolity, infidelity et al of the Restoration era along with a slew of other things to reveal “characters which should appear ridiculous not so much through the nature of their folly as through an affected wit; a wit which, at the same time that is affected, is also false.”
I won’t even attempt to lay out the plot because it is so utterly baffling that even after reading the synopsis given in the booklet and the Wikipedia afterwards (and seeing the performance!); I pretty much have no clue how to describe the story. The main points I could squeeze out of my mystified brain are these: Millamant and Mirabell (yeah try and guess which is the man!) are in love but need the approval of an ornery, grouchy aunt. To circumvent this, all sorts of plots and schemes are hatched by the two love birds. Along with several other side schemes by their friends and companions who seem to have all had affairs with each other. Basically, everyone is sleeping with and tricking everyone else.
There were two high points of the evening.
One was the realisation that the Millamant, played by Veanne Cox, was the lady in the “Pinky Toe” episode of Seinfeld. I immediately recognised her from her peculiar high pitched and shrill voice. Her nonchalant yet simultaneously obsessive nature made her a perfect lovelorn lady of the 18th century. She wanted Mirabell but couldn’t REALLY let him know. I mean, it’s a mans job to woo a lady. She had to sit back and wait to enter into the awful concept of marriage (yet secretly that’s exactly what she desired). It was hard not to laugh out loud at her check list of marriages conditions which will eventually lead to her “dwindling into a wife”. Her cheerfully hyper demeanour went from 0-100 in just a second to reveal a dead pan sombre face. And what a face! A more expressive one I can’t say I have seen. Kudos to her for a job well done.
The second high point was Lady Wishfort, the Aunt, played by Nancy Robinette. Everything that came out of her mouth was hilarious. This wealthy bachelorette is ripe for the taking and very willing. She is led to believe that a worthy suitor and rich uncle to Mirabell, Sir Rowland, will pay her a visit and ask for her hand in marriage. In reality, he is Mirabell’s servant (who he has married to Wishfort’s servant) who has disguised himself to win the ladies approval and perhaps change her mood toward Mirabell. Confusing right? Anyway, Lady Wishfort squeals with girlish delight at the thought of a live man in her bedroom. She comically tries different positions and demeanours in which to greet him. Shall she be walking? Lying down? Leaning over a chair with a bit of ankle showing?? Should she laugh childishly? Be shy? She finally concludes that |” A little disdain is not amiss; a little scorn is alluring.” If you have ever seen the British comedy Keeping up Appearances, then you can relate the quick witted over to top society lady ramblings to Hyacinth Bucket. Her presence was truly a delight.
Although not for those with short attention spans and disregard for details, this rich comedy does deliver laughs and social commentary on the institution of marriage, fidelity and indeed the way of the world.
The Way of The World is on stage through Nov. 16 at Shakespeare Theater.
Tickets are available online.