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Soldier of Love 

Jealousy and deception fuel The Guardsman

The Alliance Theatre's The Guardsman may be a romantic comedy of manners nearly a century old, but burning, destructive obsession lurks in its tastefully appointed corners. In the Alliance's elegantly staged production of this Hungarian classic, a jealous husband proves to be his own worst rival. Literally.

The honeymoon is definitely over for two renowned, married actors, Nandor (Ray Dooley) and Illona (Hollis Resnik), whose playful banter sounds more like petty bickering. Nandor at first appears to be all arch, biting intellect: In his aristocratic dressing gown, Dooley could be Sherlock Holmes or a Noel Coward lead. Yet in Illona's absence, he confesses that he desperately loves his wife and worries that she'll stray.

Knowing that Illona fantasizes about dashing, aristocratic soldiers, Nandor masquerades as just such a suitor to test her fidelity. When Nandor first appears in the guise of an Austrian Royal guardsman, he looks like a figure from the label of a swanky gin bottle, and Hungarian director Laszlo Marton slyly brings the lights down to a pinkish glow suitable for the cover of a bodice-ripping novel.

The Guardsman's premise provides plenty of fresh, spontaneous comedic situations, yet the play shows more emotional insight than the average Hollywood romantic-comedy, or even adequate screwball stage plays like Moon Over Buffalo. Such scripts construct complicated plots that seldom delve into their characters' psyches, but Nandor's masquerade reveals a host of familiar masculine anxieties.

Nandor is secretly delighted when Illona initially resists the guardsman's overtures: It proves she's a faithful wife. But when Illona seems increasingly intrigued by the prospect of an affair, Nandor panics that he's a more potent Casanova than he ever dreamed. He finds it difficult to reveal the truth to Illona, partly because he can't resist seeing if she'll go all the way. It's like he has a masochistic impulse that wants her to confirm his worst fears.

Yet Nandor also grows attached to the guardsman's unfussy machismo. He can't quite contain his pride while incognito, and at times when he questions Illona about her husband, he's clearly fishing for compliments. But Nandor's mostly drawn to his martial alter ego because the guardsman can be virile, chivalrous and passionate, not finicky, arrogant and histrionic like the actor. In his case, the clothes really do make the man, and Nandor resists "killing" his more plainspoken, manly persona.

The play's attitudes about femininity aren't as easy to read. Nandor dismisses the notion that Illona sees through his disguise, but we're less certain. She's an actress, too, and throughout the play we wonder if she's testing her husband, or genuinely wants the guardsman to sweep her off her feet. Resnik gives a rich, wise performance that never reduces Illona to a shrill drama queen. But nor does her portrayal reassure us of the depth of the wife's love for her husband. It's hard to say if the Alliance show wants to celebrate Illona's vivacious personality, or more obliquely critique her. It's not much of a compliment to say women are better deceivers than men.

The production's physical details enhance the script's theme of play-acting. Opera-house boxed seats, occupied by nude mannequins, frame the set. Most puckishly, a dollhouse miniature of The Guardsman's own set stands atop the piano in the drawing room. The touches remind us that we're seeing artifice within artifice, and that the play presents a story both more exaggerated and more refined than love in real life.

The Guardsman makes a jewel box of a show, though it at times treats the setup a bit too delicately. A few more jokes would be welcome. As a flighty maid, Kylie Brown has a funny habit of rushing headlong from room to room, but supporting players Evan Thompson and DeAnn Mears play their roles too stiffly, and at times the energy level flags. Still, The Guardsman sparkles with playful yet pointed romantic brinkmanship that makes you question whether all truly is fair in love and war.

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