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Illuminating Silliness: “The Guardsman” woos at A Noise Within

Elyse Mirto and the disguised Freddy Douglas in The Guardsman [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elyse Mirto and the disguised Freddy Douglas in The Guardsman [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The Hungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar had an eye for human frailty. Even at his most comic, as in “The Guardsman,” there is an underlying framework of what seems almost a pity for the foibles of mankind. Still, that doesn’t mean that “The Guardsman” isn’t also very funny, if well played.

Now in repertory at A Noise Within, Molnar’s “Guardsman” aims for the silliness of it all. As many of his day did, Molnar makes ferocious fun of famous actors, in this case by playing them off each other. They are naturally narcissistic. Everything about their lives is artificial. How could they possibly search for genuine emotion, or even recognize it if it appeared?

Freddy Douglas is The Actor, a well-known performer married to an actress delighted by the adoration of her fans. As their initially wild passion has faded into domesticity, he becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him, and so he decides to test her. He woos her, first with letters and finally in costume and make-up, as a military officer – a guardsman – to see if she will succumb to the charms of another.

Douglas plays his character delightfully over the top, and yet with an undercurrent of elemental insecurity. His portrait of the guardsman, as obvious and ridiculous as it is, still vibrates with a kind of desperate hope. Against him, Elyse Mirto has a lovely time as the sweepingly commanding Actress. Bearing always an aura of command, she sweeps through rooms like a force of nature. Are the arguments of these two a chance to make a scene, or are they genuine? Is the actress fooled by her husband’s ruse, or is she playing him as she does the piano?

Director Michael Michetti finds the balance necessary to make this production work – allowing the overly-dramatic sweeps of feeling, while keeping the humanity of his overblown characters consistently on the actor’s minds. With this, the play turns, not into farce, but into a more grounded comedy. If that sometimes make the laughs somewhat smaller, the net result is worth it.

Aiding in the wild world the central characters inhabit are a fine collection of supporting players. Wendy Worthington proves practical and protective as the peasant dresser The Actress has hired to act as her mother on a daily basis. Sasha Pasternak becomes the overwhelmed innocent as their newest maid – overwhelmed by the sheer emotion flowing through the house. Todd Andrew Ball makes very funny work of the creditor always being put off by a couple delightedly living beyond their means, and Judy Durning has a brief but likable turn as the usher controlling access to The Actress’ box at the opera.

Yet, it is Robertson Dean who gets handed the role most to be envied: the one voicing Molnar’s own commentaries, as the practical theater critic who has known the couple on and offstage for many years. As the one character grounded in reality, he proves the only one able to step into and out of the hyper-emotional world the others inhabit, and – as played by Dean – provides an innate steadiness which keeps righting the ship before it founders completely.

In short, “The Guardsman” was never intended to be deep, but by playing it for meaning as well as for farce, it becomes something more than sheer silliness. As such, it offers fun and just a tiny bit of introspection, mystery with just a small gut-level feeling of recognition. It’s not a bad thing to get some thought with your laughter, even in a play this silly.

What: “The Guardsman” When: in repertory through November 30: 8 p.m. November 1, 2, 15, 16, and 30, 2 p.m. November 2, 10, and 30, 7 p.m. November 10, and 7:30 p.m. November 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or

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