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STAGE REVIEW

Centuries old, this comedy still conquers

Mia Barron and Jon Patrick Walker in “She Stoops to Conquer’’ at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Mia Barron and Jon Patrick Walker in “She Stoops to Conquer’’ at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (T. Charles Erickson)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 1, 2011

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WILLAMSTOWN – Early in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s stylish production of “She Stoops to Conquer,’’ Mr. Hardcastle, the befuddled paterfamilias played by Paxton Whitehead, stoutly declares: “I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine. . .’’ Hear, hear. But the passage of time is not always kind to comedy. The cultural and class assumptions that make something funny in one era can land with a thud, or at least curdle the laughter, in another era.

So to enjoy Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy of manners, a modern audience has to get past the play’s dated notions about social status hierarchies - Shakespeare requires similar mental gymnastics - and savor its wit and insights into human nature.

Director Nicholas Martin clearly loves this spirited roundelay of mistaken identities, and that affection comes through in the brio with which he invests the WTF production. (He also directed a production of “She Stoops to Conquer’’ two years ago at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., with several of the same cast members, on which the current WTF production is based).

In the central role of Charles Marlow, Jon Patrick Walker delivers a portrayal so dexterous that he somehow manages to keep Marlow from entirely forfeiting our sympathy. You see, Marlow is a wealthy young man who is utterly tongue-tied in the presence of upper-class women, but quite forward and even lecherous with women of a lower station.

In company with his friend George Hastings (Jeremy Webb), Marlow is heading for the Hardcastle estate, home of Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (Kristine Nielsen), their daughter, Kate (Mia Barron), and Tony Lumpkin (Brooks Ashmanskas), the wastrel son of Mrs. Hardcastle from a previous marriage.

Per an agreement between Marlow’s father and Mr. Hardcastle, whom the young fellow has never met, Marlow is to be introduced to Kate and, if all goes well, wed her. But of course all does not go well.

During a stop at the Three Pigeons Alehouse, Marlow and Hastings encounter Tony, who decides to play a prank on them. Informing the pair that the Hardcastle estate is too far to reach on this night, Tony then gives them directions to the estate while telling them it is an inn. He also confides that the innkeeper (i.e., Mr. Hardcastle) suffers from delusions of social grandeur and thinks himself a gentleman.

Once they have arrived and are greeted by Mr. Hardcastle, Marlow and Hastings begin to order their host about (Marlow even takes his boots off and thrusts them at the older gentleman) and generally treat him with brusque condescension. In the face of this impertinence, Mr. Hardcastle is reduced to sputtering astonishment.

Later, still believing he’s at an inn, Marlow stammers his way through a meeting with Kate, unable to even look her in the eye. (Walker, an agile and expressive actor, deftly handles the moment when a tablecloth gets stuck in Marlow’s trousers and trails him like a tail). But after Kate disguises herself as a barmaid who works in the supposed inn, Marlow regains his cockiness and begins hitting on her big-time.

To further complicate the picture, there’s a subplot involving some precious jewels that are supposed to be inherited by Mrs. Hardcastle’s niece, Constance Neville (Holley Fain). Constance is in love with Hastings, and the two want to elope, but Mrs. Hardcastle plans to force her son Tony to marry Constance, thereby keeping the jewels in the family. Tony and Constance overcome their aversion to each other long enough to team up in a jewel-related scheme that sends Mrs. Hardcastle into a tizzy.

Then again, Mrs. Hardcastle is nothing if not tizzy-prone. Nielsen sails right over the top in her entertaining performance, as if trying to match the outlandishness of the oversized pink gown in which costume designer Gabriel Berry has attired her. So does Ashmanskas, a nimble and rubber-faced performer, who capers and mugs relentlessly in the role of Tony, to generally amusing effect.

As Kate, Barron conveys enough smarts and maturity that you wonder why the character would settle for a lunkhead like Marlow. Whitehead, a pro’s pro, is terrific as Mr. Hardcastle, from pontificating start to all’s-well finish.

The set design by David Korins is so sumptuous that the audience burst into applause as soon as the curtain rose on “She Stoops to Conquer.’’ His work on WTF’s “A Doll’s House’’ was equally impressive. You won’t see him onstage, but Korins just might be the star of this summer at Williamstown.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER Play by: Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by Nicholas Martin. Sets, David Korins. Lights, Ben Stanton. Costumes, Gabriel Berry. Sound, Drew Levy. Through Aug. 7.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, Williamstown. Tickets $50-$54, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org