Picture it: England, 1707.
Two guys who have run out of money decide to seek out and successfully woo rich women. They take turns playing master and servant as they roam the countryside in their quest, which leads them to the town of Lichfield and some very promising prospects.
That set-up leads to all sorts of crazy things in George Farquhar's "The Beaux' Stratagem," one of the classics of Restoration Comedy, the genre that flourished for several decades after Charles II assumed the British throne in 1660. To wrap up the inaugural season in its new home, Everyman Theatre is presenting this 306-year-old play in a version that is much newer.
In 1939, Thornton Wilder started on an adaptation of "The Beaux' Stratagem" but put it aside halfway through. The famed author of "Our Town" and "The Matchmaker" died in 1975 without ever picking up that draft again.
Skip to 2004. Wilder's nephew and literary executor Tappan Wilder approached Ken Ludwig, the Washington-based playwright of such hits as the breezy farce "Lend Me a Tenor" and sparkling musical "Crazy for You," about finishing the text.
"I love this kind of comedy," Ludwig said, "and getting a chance to bathe in it was very attractive. George Farquhar is my favorite of the late Restoration playwrights. But I knew 'The Beaux' Stratagem' more from a scholarly side. The play is rarely done, even in England."
Ludwig's completed version first saw the light of the stage in a 2006 Washington Shakespeare Theatre production.
Among those admiring the results back then was Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi, who is now directing the Farquhar/Wilder/Ludwig play. It's the company's second foray into 17th-century British comedy; the first, seven years ago, was Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal."
"I'm enjoying this one just as much, if not more, than 'School for Scandal,'" Lancisi said. "It's as funny as a Ken Ludwig farce, which is pretty darn funny."
When Ludwig started digging into Wilder's unfinished draft, he quickly saw a master at work. Not that he was surprised — "Wilder was so intelligent and he knew European plays very well," Ludwig said.
The year before trying his hand at adapting Farquhar, Wilder's reworking of an 1842 Austrian play by Johann Nestroy was put on the New York stage with the title "The Merchant of Yonkers." It failed in 1938 but came roaring back in 1955, revised as "The Matchmaker."
"Of all the things he could have adapted, 'Beaux Stratagem' seems like an odd thing to choose," Ludwig said, "because it's already in English. But if you read the original, it is a bit impenetrable; it's very complex and convoluted. Wilder saw the bones of a good comedy. It just had to be pruned. He cut out some characters that didn't advance the story and added one. It was a bold thing for him to do."
Ludwig ended up doing something pretty bold, too. Initially, he set out only to pick up where Wilder's draft left off.
"But once I rolled up my sleeves and figured out what needed to be done, I realized I had to go back to the first part that Wilder had written," Ludwig said.
That meant changes to the draft. One of Ludwig's additions — "I thought it would be fun," he said — was having characters address the audience, as they do in some other Wilder plays. Fortunately for Ludwig, the Wilder estate didn't object.
"Hopefully," Ludwig said, "it all sounds rather Wilderian, if there's such a word. The play moves along at a nice, clear pace; it's good-hearted; and it doesn't feel like it's straining too hard. That's a hallmark of Wilder."
If you go
"The Beaux' Stratagem" opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs through June 30 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $60. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.