Court Theatre

I saw She Stoops to Conquer at the Court Theatre the night after I saw The Nerd at the Royal-George. Considering that the plays were written more than two centuries apart, they bear some striking similarities.

Both plays, for example, are built upon an awkward visit. In She Stoops, the visitor is Marlow, a young man recommended as a suitor for Kate Hardcastle. He arrives at the Hardcastle home believing he is at an inn, so he treats Mr. Hardcastle like an innkeeper, complains about the food, and puts his feet on the furniture. In The Nerd, the title character drops in on the man whose life he saved in Vietnam. Then he proceeds to make a shambles of that life.

In both plays, the visitor’s traits are inherently funny. Marlow is tongue-tied and painfully shy around women of his own rank but a real tiger with servant girls. This accounts for a fundamental confusion in the play: when he is introduced to Kate Hardcastle, Marlow can’t even look her in the eye, but later, after she has changed into a housedress, he mistakes her for a barmaid and brazenly tries to sweep her into his arms. The nerd is exactly what you’d expect–dull, exasperating, innocently insensitive, and full of annoying habits, such as practicing his tambourine late at night.

Coincidentally, both plays also opened to rave reviews in London, and both playwrights died a few months after that first production. (“Doctor” Oliver Goldsmith inadvertently poisoned himself with the wrong medicine and died in April 1774, at the age of 44 or 46. Larry Shue died in a plane crash in 1985, at the age of 38.)

Despite these similarities in plot and characterization–and in the fate of the playwrights–a fundamental difference distinguishes the two works, a difference that makes She Stoops to Conquer far more relevant, despite its age, than The Nerd, which tries to be as hip as last week’s Saturday Night Live! The difference is simply this: Goldsmith built his humor on astute observation of human behavior; Shue merely tried to be outrageous. That may not sound like a major distinction, but it’s the difference between making a witty remark at a party and putting a lamp shade on your head.

The idiosyncrasies of Goldsmith’s characters actually propel the plot. Mr. Hardcastle longs for respect, his wife longs to be fashionable, so they live in an ostentatious house that looks like an inn. Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle’s son by a previous marriage, is a mischievous drunk who happens to be at the alehouse when Marlow stops to ask directions. He is inclined to play a joke on his stepfather by directing the traveler to the Hardcastle “inn.” Because of that joke, Marlow’s dual personality is exposed, and clever Kate can “stoop” to conquer him by deftly manipulating the situation.

Because the action of the play springs from the characters, whose foibles Goldsmith clearly presents, no matter how preposterous the action becomes, it is never entirely implausible. Or at least it never seems entirely implausible–it can always be traced back to the all-too-human qualities of the characters involved. The Nerd, on the other hand, which merely imposes preposterous situations on characters, quickly becomes implausible, and consequently not funny.

This same distinction–between wit and mere silliness–is also reflected in two different performances in the Court Theatre’s production of She Stoops. At one extreme is the highly intelligent performance of Seana McKenna as Kate Hardcastle. McKenna, a member of Toronto’s Stratford Festival, is fully engaged. Her glances, her body language, her facial expressions are always in response to what is happening within the play. And these little gestures allow the audience to know this character very well–her wit, her apprehensions, her capacity for mischief.

At the other extreme is Laurel Cronin’s performance as Mrs. Hardcastle. By exaggerating her character’s foolishness, Cronin at times seems more aware of the audience than of the other characters. She concentrates on getting laughs, not on portraying a laughable character. When she is engaged with the action onstage–when her lewd chuckle, for example, betrays Mrs. Hardcastle’s fondness for flattery–she is terrifically funny. But like Larry Shue, she is not above silliness for its own sake, and director James Bohnen didn’t–or couldn’t–restrain her. So in the scene where Mrs. Hardcastle is lost at night on her own estate, Cronin actually rolls, squealing and kicking, down a hill, like some intruder from a French farce. Funny, yes, but painfully out of tune with the subtle harmonies Goldsmith created.

The rest of the cast members are animated without being outlandish. Steven Hauck deftly projects both Marlow’s suffocating shyness and his masculine bravado, while William McKereghan sputters and huffs as the indignant Mr. Hardcastle. Peter Farley plays Hastings, Marlow’s companion, as someone who quickly loses his common sense as he plans to elope with his love, Constance Neville, played with verve by Jean McNally. And Laurence Russo is wonderfully rakish and sassy as Tony Lumpkin.

Goldsmith wrote She Stoops to Conquer as a put-down of the sentimental comedy popular in London at the time. And his criticisms are specific enough that they may be lost on anyone unfamiliar with the obscure comedies in question. Yet because he focused on familiar human foibles, the kind that don’t change over the centuries, Goldsmith’s play remains funnier than any nerd could hope to be.