THE BASICS: This charming 1935 comedy by Terrence Rattigan (his breakout play) has by directed by Kate Lynch and plays in repertory at the Royal George Theatre through September 15th. It runs close to 2½ hours with its single intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action takes place in the living room of a villa in a small seaside town in the west of France, 1930's. With their sites on the diplomatic service, a small group of privileged and rather effete young brits are taking a stab at learning French, under the tutelage of the gruff-and-grum M. Maingot. It's hard to stay focused, however, when there are fetching young ladies on the premises. Playwright Rattigan treats us to a lovely round of mix and match, where the lessons are mostly all about life and love.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY AND THE PRODUCTION: Ben Sanders is right on the money as the smart, cynical Alan, a thinly veiled, straight version of the playwright himself. Wade Bogert-O'Brien as the lovesick Kit, and Craig Pike as genial, on-the-prowl Brian make able companions. The standout, though, is Martin Happer as Lt-Commander Rogers, a tight lipped, semi-macho (these are British characters, after all) sea captain, who, fresh off the boat, falls for the local enchantress, Diana Lake. It's a richly funny performance, and expands in latitude (like those of Sanders and Bogert-O'Brien) with a generous application of alcohol in the second act. As the predatory Diana, Robin Evan Willis is also most amusing. Tall, willowy and very blonde, she uses her feminine wiles on anything remotely attractive in pants, playing with men as a cat plays with a mouse. The fact that she is a wee bit gawky makes things all the more jolly. Julie Martell has the harder job, playing "Jack", Maingot's wise, sensible, pretty but non-flashy daughter. Carrying the torch forlornly for Kit, Martell evokes our sympathy, and also gets laughs with her sharp remarks and funny facial expressions.
FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS, while a little antique in some ways, has lost nothing of its sweetness and wit. It's a well-crafted and extremely engaging look at young men growing up, something that young men everywhere are still doing. I'll admit, it does help to know some French; Michael Ball, as Maingot, blusters about speaking French almost entirely, and exhorting everyone else to do so. Still, you can have a lot of fun here knowing as little French as most of Maingot's pupils.
Kudos to director Lynch, who has an obvious flair for comedy, and gets big laughs in spots in the absence of any spoken dialogue. William Schmuck's country lodge set and costumes (especially the dress ball ones) are expectedly first rate.
In summary, here's a delightful, neglected comedy getting a stunning revival the Shaw. Here's hoping for more Rattigan in the near future!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who's happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don't go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb--a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you'd be a fool to miss it!