Ferenc Molnár’s third wife, the actress Lili Darvas, reported that a chambermaid once declared the master not working, merely doing something at his desk. And Molnár’s comedies do have the most unlabored, delusively easeful air of happy improvisations. The Guardsman (1910), which the Hungarian author wrote just after Liliom, is no exception. A dazzling acting couple (think the Lunts), recently married and co-starring in a period comedy (think Kiss Me, Kate), are already constantly sparring, he even doubting her fidelity.
As transmogrified into the musical Enter the Guardsman, the piece presents us with characters bearing generic names: the Actor, the Actress, the Playwright, etc. In cahoots with the Playwright, the Actor decides to test the faithfulness of his wife by disguising himself as an amorous guardsman, a fan trying to seduce the Actress in her dressing room or on the empty, darkened stage.
It is the most theatrical of plays, taking place onstage, backstage, and in the wings, and involving a playwright frustratedly in love with his leading lady, whose husband is jealously testing her in operetta-ish costume and makeup, as the playwright stands by, notebook in hand, hoping to make a play out of the result. The borders between living and acting become effaced, as are the boundaries between a finished play and one being improvised or written. (Tom Stoppard, who adapted another Molnár play, could well have derived The Real Thing partly from this one.)
With book and direction by Scott Wentworth, music and orchestration by Craig Bohmler, and lyrics by Marion Adler, Enter the Guardsman is just off the mark; there is a whiff of the provincial, the unfulfilled, about almost every aspect of this show and production, although Mark Jacoby, as the Playwright, does score. Or is it that, like Molnár, profoundly unhappy in his last years of exile in New York, his works do not readily adapt to America?