“The Guardsman” currently playing at the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center is a surprisingly delightful comedy. I came in with some hesitancy as it is a new translation of a play that was first put on in 1924. There hadn’t been great buzz surrounding the arrival of this production and I feared that it was going to be dated with some corny humor. I guess that is why you go to a show with an open mind and put your pre-conceived notions as to what you are expecting away, because sometimes you’ll find a gem where you weren’t expecting it. And that is exactly what you got with “The Guardsman”, a gem of a comedy. The show takes place in Budapest in the early 1900s and tells the story of a nameless actor/husband who believes his nameless actress/wife is no longer in love with him after six months of marriage. He sets forth a plot to determine whether his wife is actually no longer in love with him by putting on a costume and playing the role of a guardsman (a military leader) and wooing his wife to see whether she would cheat on him, or reject the guardsman and be faithful to him. On the surface this may seem like the plot of a re-treaded sitcom, but thankfully this show is much more than that. The plot spills out during the first act when the actor/husband, portrayed by Finn Wittrock, reveals his concern about his wife’s fidelity to a character called The Critic who is also a confidant of both the husband and wife, portrayed by Shuler Hensley. The show is largely told from the perspective of the husband and the real crux of the show and the comedy is the dual “mystery” of whether the wife/actress, portrayed by Sarah Wayne Callies, actually knows that it was her husband in the costume and whether she still loves her husband. The obvious silliness of seeing the actor/husband in the facial hair, wig and uniform of the guardsman with a thick accent elicits a laugh from the audience. However, the most memorable comedy moments are between the actor/husband and the critic and the discussion of the his plot and the guardsman as if he were actually a third person.
The director and actors walked a very fine line of a show that could have easily turned into the silliness of a farce. With the main character in a costume trying to fool his wife, characters listening to conversations at doors, and characters exiting rooms just as another character is about to enter. However, the show thankfully never sunk to those levels. The pacing of the show and the entering and exiting of the rooms was never played for a laugh with the comedy being drawn more from the situation and the conversations between the characters. It was an extremely well casted production. Finn Wittrock was superb as a husband who was convinced his wife was cheating on him and was so desperate to catch her that he went to somewhat unbelievable lengths. Shuler Hensley hit just the right note with The Critic with his loyalty to his friend, but also noting the absolute absurdity of what his friend was attempting to pull off. And in retrospect, Sarah Wayne Callies really did a fantastic job as the wife in her ability to play the role of this seemingly unhappy woman who receives a spark in her life with the presence of this new suitor in the guardsman. As the ruse is unraveled her ability to turn everything we know on its head leaves the show with an ending that will provide you and those you see the show with ample opportunity to dissect what the various characters have said and done, who was being truthful, and what the characters actually felt at the close of the show.