The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is concluding its Mainstage season by doing what the Rep does best. In mounting The Gamester, a new play derived from a once-popular but now-obscure seventeenth-century French comedy, the Rep is relying on visual splendor to camouflage the production's defects. The evening provides a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The symmetrical scarlet set by John Ezell is spectacular and provocative, the costumes by Elizabeth Covey breathtakingly ornate. But after a viewer has absorbed all this opulence, he might find himself asking one essential question: Why is this negligible play even being staged?
To put The Gamester into perspective, six months ago the Rep opened its season with an exhilarating revival of Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, which is perhaps the most deftly crafted French farce ever written. But when the Rep produces only six plays a season and has the entire canon of world theater from which to select, why would it choose to stage a second comedy mined from that same Gallic vein, especially one whose shortcomings are bound to be all the more glaring in comparison to the Feydeau piece? The mind boggles.
Even if the Rep had not produced another French farce this season, The Gamester would still be a dubious prospect. There's no denying that the text, which is written in rhymed couplets, is clever. But by the time the lights finally dim on this very long evening (at 75 minutes, Act 1 seems to drag on forever), one comes to realize that cleverness as an end in itself soon devolves into tedium.
Although it would be wrong to overlook the sheer labor that playwright Freyda Thomas employed in composing her script, it should be noted that Thomas is not only the author of The Gamester but the author of its downfall. When poet Richard Wilbur translates the comedies of Molière into rhymed pentameter, he uses verse to explore character and to enter the world of seventeenth-century France. By contrast, the incessant singsong of The Gamester becomes a straitjacket. This play's world is merely that of a rhyming dictionary.
After a while, watching The Gamester is akin to viewing an old movie on TV in which the dialogue is out of sync. Here, the viewer is always one sentence ahead of the actors. The minute we hear a word at the end of a line, our minds race to find the corresponding rhyme before it is delivered onstage. In time, the notion of yet another rhyme becomes less than sublime.
The framework for this ribald sex comedy surrounds Valere, a compulsive young gambler in love with the aptly named Angelique. Unhappily for Valere, his ever-mounting gambling debts are a formidable roadblock to bliss. As Valere pursues Angelique (and is pursued by others), such obvious double-entendre words as "thrust," "bosom," "breast," "sword" and "ripe" go into overdrive, as do such overworked phallic symbols as bananas and sausages.
Director Bruce Longworth and his stalwart cast do what they can to enliven such tiresome proceedings. The stage is aflutter with pretty tableaux and period-posing performances. As Angelique, Devon Sorvari is a charmer whose intelligent phrasing suggests that she would be an even more charming Rosalind in As You Like It. Whit Reichert brings a welcome understatement to the befuddled humor of Angelique's duped suitor. Anderson Matthews is a regional theater's dream actor. The Rep uses him frequently, and he never fails to create an original character. As Valere's stern father, Matthews once again performs with aplomb. But it was almost cruel of the Rep to cast him, and Jeffries Thaiss as Valere, because both actors gave such brilliant performances in A Flea in Her Ear. Their work here is yet another reminder of the weakness of this material. This is especially true of Thaiss. In the Feydeau, he was inspired; as the gamester, he is merely glib. His Valere bears an uncanny resemblance to Harvey Korman doing a comedy sketch on the old Carol Burnett Show.
That, really, is what The Gamester is best likened to. It's a sketch that doesn't know when to quit. Despite all the gorgeous production values, what we get here is so much effort to so little effect.