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Agonizing Guardsman soars on acting, charm

"The audience laughed at a perfectly agonizing play of mine:" A disguised Nandor (Timothy Landfield) and Ilona (Kandis Chappell) embrace in Molnar's compelling Guardsman.

The Guardsman

Directed by Jacques Cartier.

Written by Franc Molnar.

Starring Timothy Landfield and

Kandis Chappell.

The Huntington Theatre Company.

Through April 9.

By Hur Koser
Staff Reporter

Set in Budapest before World War I, The Guardsman is about Nandor (Timothy Landfield), a flamboyant, talented actor and Ilona (Kandis Chappell), his equally famous and strong-willed actress wife, who is known for becoming restless after a half-year's commitment to her lovers. It is mid-May, six months since their Christmas marriage, and a restless Ilona is already showing signs that she wants to move on to her next romantic enterprise. Overwhelmed with love and jealousy, Nandor decides to seduce his own wife, disguising himself as an imperial guardsman. This is supposedly a two-pronged test: Nandor strives to prove in real life the superiority of his acting skills while at the same time hoping to discover that his wife is faithful. What follows is a fascinating flip-flop between reality and illusion, a co-revelation of truth and fiction with a certain taste of humor.

The Guardsman premiered in Budapest in 1910 and arrived on Broadway in 1913 under the title When Ignorance is Bliss. It appears that at first the American version did not quite appeal to the Broadway audience. However, eleven years later, the play received widespread American critical acclaim with the New York production of a new adaptation by Philip Moeller under the original title. The Guardsman has since been extensively performed. It has also appeared in several festivals, including the Shaw Festival in Ontario (1969), the Stratford Festival (1977), and most recently in the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1993), although it has never appeared on a Boston stage before.

"Molnar's theatre is unique in our time because it is an endless self-exploration," writes S.N. Behrman for the New Yorker in 1946. "Molnar's theme is himself, and he has taken his society right along with him over the footlights and confided to it expansively in stage whispers."

Franc Molnar's own regard of his works, however, differs slightly. In a book he finished in 1950, two years before his death, he complains about having sometimes been mistaken for a sarcastic playwright. "They laughed at things of mine that weren't made to be laughed at," protests Molnar. "I got money for it, and so I was a coward and kept quiet. The audience everywhere in the world laughed at a perfectly agonizing play of mine in which a lovelorn suffering actor in disguise seduces his loose-living wife." To one of his biographers, Molire, the deathless master of comedy writers, confessed that "his laughter is the laughter of a skeptic staggering under repeated blows of fate, who keeps putting on a comic show for others, and putting down his thoughts in comic plays,'" writes Molnar. "That's how people laughed at the plays of Molire's unworthy pupil, myself."

The Huntington Theatre Company calls The Guardsman a comedy. It is quite a dilemma for the audience, though, to decide whether it is best to laugh at Nandor's futile attempts to satisfy his doubts about his wife Ilona's faithfulness or to sympathy with his agonizing panic of losing her. The fact that the play does not conclude with the commonplace comic ending - it is debatable whether it is a conclusive, happy ending or not - reinforces Molnar's personal interpretation of his play as "agonizing."

Nevertheless, whatever point of view we accept, it is indisputable that Kandis Chappell and Timothy Landfield both deserve the highest praises for their excellent reflections of both these views in the fictional personalities they assume. It is no surprise, of course, that Chappell excels in her role as Ilona: She is an experienced and well-known actress who has worked extensively on the West Coast, and she is the only actress who has won three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress. It is no surprise either that Landfield identifies so easily with Nandor, an incredibly demanding role, when we note his successes in Tartuffe and Rumours. This is, of course, not to discredit Tammy Grimes as the mother of Ilona and the rest of the cast for letting the audience actually feel and breathe the air of early 20th century Hungary.

The remaining credit goes to Scene Designer James Leonard Joy for making the play communicate at a glance the romantic and exotic elements of the play's Hungarian setting. It is almost incredible to experience such an abundance of fine detail in both the drawing room of Act I and in the antechamber of a balcony at the Budapest Opera House of Act II. Joy actually went so far as to recreate the opera house interior on a 24 foot-tall, 576 square-foot, and highly detailed painted drop, even though it will be glimpsed only through a doorway off to stage left.

The Guardsman offers a delightful evening at the Huntington Theatre Company. It is definitely worth seeing before its last performance on April 9.