Theater classic The Guardsman has been reinvigorated at The Kennedy Center (playing now through June 23rd). While many are familiar with the light hearted version of Ferenc Molnár’s play, translator Richard Nelson discovered a darker version of the play after getting a hold of a direct translation of the original script. Directed by Gregory Mosher, The Guardsman is both a hilarious and cruel. Although, it was missing some of the bleakness promised by the original script, it is still a captivating look into a spectacularly failing marriage. Watching it feels like riding a roller coaster that seems as if it’s going to come apart at any second, and yet you’re still surprised when it does.
The play begins in the austere living room of a two married actors whose names are never revealed. It’s clear that they’re relationship is falling apart, and as soon as the Actress (Sarah Wayne Callies) leaves the room the Actor (Finn Wittrock) announces his insane plan to win back her love to their friend, a theater critic (Shuler Hensley). He notes that his wife can only be with the same man for six months, and that his six are up. So he has decided to pretend to be a her ideal man, an Emperor’s guardsman, and attempt to seduce her in order to test her devotion to him.
It is, as you can guess, a complete mess. The Actor, driven crazy by love for his wife, is both trying his best to win her back all the while actively hindering his own plan. It’s a scenario that could have gone much darker. Mosher’s version has plenty of laughs and venomous quips, yet it was missing the despair that Nelson’s new translation promised. Molnár wrote the play while recovering from attempting suicide after a difficult break up with an actress and was very upset with how the play was presented in the US, “The audience… laughed at a perfectly agonizing play of mine in which a lovelorn suffering actor in disguise seduces his own loose-living wife.” This version is definitely more hopeless than the original Broadway version and the movie, but the audience was laughing more often than not. Only the last seconds of the play really portrayed the couples desperation.
Despite that, the scenes between Wittrock and Hensley were incredible. Their dialogues had the perfect combination between witty one liners and true vulnerability. Wittrock was over the top, either shouting, euphoric, or almost at tears, while Hensley was level headed and sure. Both of them portrayed the differences in their characters extremely well, which was particularly noticeable when they talked about their love for Callies. Wittrock would wax romantic about the beginning of his relationship with dramatic gestures and quotes from famous plays. Hensley only mentioned his love for Callies a handful of times and it was almost always the but of a joke made all the more funny by his deadpan delivery.
Callies brings humanity to a character whose cruelness and aptitude for lying is shocking. In the first act, Callies was often close to the edge of the stage, facing directly at the audience, making it easier for us to see her grimaces when Wittrock yells at her, as well as her despair at being trapped. Which makes it much easier for the audience to sympathize with her. It would be easy to make the Actress out as the villain, but Callies gives her depth without making her seem horrible. You almost don’t blame her for falling for someone else.
This adaptation of “The Guardsman” does a great job at portraying the complexity of a relationship through a comedic lens. Love is simultaneously horrible and beautiful. It can drive people to do crazy things and bring the most unlikely couples together. What makes “The Guardsman” different is that both of these things happen at the exact same time, for better or worse.