The main character of the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s “The Guardsman” thinks he’s put himself in a win-win situation. He’s a famous actor in Budapest, in 1910, and his new wife seems to have fallen out of love with him. So he devises a way to test her. He’ll impersonate a fabulously dashing military officer — a guardsman — and see if he can get his wife to fall in love with the character.
If she resists, he’ll be reassured. And if she succumbs, and least he’ll know the joy of winning her love again (through his character), and he’ll have the satisfaction of knowing he pulled off the ultimate acting challenge.
But this win-win situation is also a lose-lose situation. Because if she resists, he’ll feel like a failure. And he she succumbs, he’ll have to face, head-on, the unbearable pain of losing her.
For anyone thinking of trying this at home: Don’t. This is not a well thought-out plan.
But the premise does make for a delightful play, which is currently getting a first-class production at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. The company’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, adapted and directed it, using a new translation by Molnár’s great-grandson, Gábor Lukin.
Introducing the play at its opening on Saturday, Monte said she believes Molnár has been “unduly ignored.” This new adaptation could help reverse that.
While there’s a madcap quality to the plot, with the actor (never identified by name, and played by Jon Barker) struggling to put his contrived scheme into action, the play is also, on another level, a psychological drama. The actor is a man at war with himself. When his wife Hélène (played by Victoria Mack) starts to warm up to the guardsman, he’s both thrilled and horrified. And she criticizes her husband to the guardsman, he can’t help but defend himself, even though this is the last thing the guardsman would do.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mezei (played by Brent Harris), a drama critic and a close friend of the couple, seems to be in love with Hélène himself. He keeps on barging in at the wrong time, adding to the general confusion. And he engages in some priceless banter with the actor.
“You’re so dramatic,” says Dr. Mezei.
“I’m an actor. Don’t be so critical,” says the actor.
“I’m a critic,” Dr. Mezei shrugs.
While the actor is intoxicated with his role of a lifetime, Hélène, a famous actress herself, seems to always be acting, too, and loving it. Is she really attracted to the guardsman, or is she just getting a kick out of being able to manipulate him so easily? And there’s almost a sadistic element to her relationship with Dr. Mezei; she knows about his feelings for her, and strings him along shamelessly.
And what about her relationship with her husband? Is she really as tired with him as she seems to be, or is this just another form of manipulation? As she admits to the guardsman, while she’s no longer “in love” with him, but she does love him.
Molnár pulls off a delicate balancing act with his ending. Depending on how you look at it, everything — or nothing — is resolved. Maybe there has been real growth. Or maybe the characters have just tinkered with the scripts of their lives, to get through another day.
“The Guardsman” is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison through July 26. For information, visit shakespearenj.org.