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Theater Review: “Husbands & Lovers” at the Washington Stage Guild

A 1924 play exploring the dynamics of male-female relationships gets its first US airing in this agreeable production.

Lynn Steinmetz and Laura Giannarelli in the Washington Stage Guild’s Husbands & Lovers. Photographs by C. Stanley Photography.

At the heart of the Washington Stage Guild’s Husbands & Lovers is the premise that love isn’t so much a battle of the sexes as it is a carefully calculated game of chess. Strategy is crucial for the four interchangeable players as they pair up and face off in artistic director Bill Largess’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s 1924 work, and though the territory feels well trodden, this production chooses mostly winning moves.

Americans may be familiar with Molnár, one of central Europe’s leading early-20th-century dramatists, because it was his play, Liliom, that served as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s inspiration for their hit musical Carousel—but until the Stage Guild’s premiere, Husbands had never set foot on a US stage. It feels like it’s right at home, considering, especially at the hands of seasoned Washington actors Peter MendezLynn SteinmetzConrad Feininger, and Laura Giannarelli. The quartet mix and match roles and relationships in a surprisingly lighthearted series of vignettes that revolve around infidelity, deceit, infatuation, and betrayal, and with a storytelling structure in which the characters are listed as “He” (Mendez), “She” (Steinmetz), “Him” (Feininger), and “Her” (Giannarelli) and age is completely relative. There’s plenty of room for imagination.

Not that this production as a whole is particularly imaginative—its sparse set and straightforward action leave that part up to the audience. The small but competent cast delivers the flexible performances Molnár’s script calls for: Mendez takes on parts from mortified teenage lover to sly seduction artist convincingly, albeit with a handful of stumbles. Feininger’s portrayals are less varied—his wide-eyed reactions and gravelly voice carry throughout the show and can border on cartoonish (in a good way). And while the scenes between the male actors are entertaining, it’s really the women who are in charge here, both in the stories and onstage.

In a play filled with elaborate plots of romantic entrapment and dishonesty, it’s Giannarelli and Steinmetz pulling the strings—tricking their trusting husbands and jealous lovers by turning commonplace interactions into satisfying schemes with a smug wink. Giannarelli and Steinmetz both have their turns stealing the spotlight and bringing to life the moral ambiguity and sharp dialogue Molnár fits into much of his work. The women don’t look like your average heroines, and their behavior would suggest they’re not, but you find yourself rooting for them anyway. “What odious creatures we women truly are,” one says with a smile. If odious was what Molnár was really going for, he missed the mark in this case; the result is more endearing than off-putting.

The Washington Stage Guild prides itself in presenting “smart plays for a smart city,” and after the wry witticism of George Bernard Shaw, Molnár is its second most frequently produced playwright. But for all its charm and admirable execution, Husbands doesn’t provide all that much fodder for after-show discourse. Save a few trip-ups that need ironing out, the production is solid and its ever-turning merry-go-round of scenes clever and entertaining—but this kind of material has been mined plenty before, and after 19 scenes of “aren’t the things men and women do for love (or lust) silly?” with no intermission, we get the idea. Getting tangled in the relationship webs we weave during this performance was enjoyable while it lasted, but shaking them off afterward felt a little too easy.

Husbands & Lovers is playing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church through March 18. Tickets ($40 to $50) are available through Washington Stage Guild’s website.