Non-Anglophiles might be surprised to learn that the man in The Man with a Load of Mischief, currently being staged by Act Inc. in tandem with Enchanted April, is no man at all. The title is the colorful name of a 19th-century pub, in which the action takes place. Nowadays a traveler in need of a night's lodging finds himself choosing among Holiday, Comfort, Quality, Ramada. But in Merrie Olde England, you took respite in the evocative likes of The Black Swan, The Dirty Duck, The Old Fox Deceiv'd or The Man With a Load of Mischief. In this 1924 British comedy by Ashley Dukes (a once-esteemed English theater critic who also cranked out lots of scripts), the remote inn sits on a back road between Bath and London Bath being the Aspen or East Hampton of its era, a health spa where the glitterati liked to gather.
The time is circa 1810. England is under the rule of mad King George III. His son kinda like Prince Charles today is impatiently biding his time until the day when he'll take charge. In the play we never see the prince, but we learn of his power and we do meet his mistress, a former actress. She is the mysterious Lady who unexpectedly arrives at the Mischief late one night, at the same time as a rakish Nobleman who sets out to seduce her. "This conquest should be tempting," he all but drools.
Through much of Act One we monitor this rake's progress. When that campaign fizzles, the Nobleman orders his thoughtful, philosophic manservant to succeed where he failed. This new stratagem leads to a tangle of falsehoods in which all the characters remain precisely who they are, yet no one is quite what they appear to be.
Kirsten Wylder renders the runaway mistress with a temperate bearing that allows us to sense her pride sapping away. In her dealings with the ardent Nobleman, Lady is ever the consummate actress. She soon realizes she's been trapped into playing a scene; she's just not quite sure from moment to moment what her next cue might be. Andrew Michael Neiman's Nobleman is a grandly inelegant poseur. Neiman provides the evening with its swagger and brio. There's a sense here that he's using the Nobleman as a run-up to Sidney Carton, Charles Dickens' dissolute anti-hero in A Tale of Two Cities, a role Neiman will be playing next month at St. Louis Shakespeare.
By contrast, Colin Nichols is an appealingly laid-back and understated serving man. It's as if director Steve Callahan wanted the braggart Neiman and the gentle Nichols to be the alpha and omega of the same person. The cast is filled out with Heather Schmidt as the Lady's plaintive maid, and by Bob Harvey and Eleanor Mullin as the Inn-Keeper and his wife. These two characters are on hand primarily to provide exposition, which by today's playwriting standards seems much too obvious and at times unnecessarily high-pitched.
Your enthusiasm for this cat-and-mouse intrigue will depend on your tolerance for discourse. The scenes between the manservant and Lady float new ideas the way some people munch peanuts: so quickly that you hardly have time to savor the taste. When the play opened on Broadway in 1925, a Time magazine critic praised its "leisurely and poetic thoroughness." But what passed for leisurely 82 years ago might seem funereal today. And though some theatergoers always take pleasure in being introduced to rarely staged scripts, it's just possible that where The Man with a Load of Mischief is concerned, some of us would rather partake of the pub than the play.