Recruiting must have been a rough business, around 1700. The idea was to get more men on your list than the other recruiters. If enough men weren't available, you might put down a baby's name and list him as "away on furlough." Some of your men might even turn out to be women. That's what happens in "The Recruiting Officer," written in 1706 by George Farquhar, who was himself a recruiting officer.
According to an account cited by the BAM Theater Company in the program for its uneven production, "an astonishing number of cases of women passing and men . . . are recorded in the annals of the period. "In the play itself, lovely Silvia masquerades as a man to be near her boyfriend (Captain Plume, a recruiter) after her father, Mr. Balance, forbids her to marry him. As a justice, and thus a pillar of society, Mr. Balance doesn't want his fortune falling into the hands of a soldier -- a wealthy soldier being a prodigy a nature with no place in Balance's orderly little world.
A fortune, an heiress, a populace divided between rowdy soldiers and country bumpkins, a main character running around in drag -- clearly we're in the domain of classical farce. "The Recruiting Officer" was Farquhar's last play except for "The Beaux' Stratagem" (his most famous) and belongs to the late Restoration , or "humane," period. The accent is not entirely on outlandish humor -- there are understones of delicacy, even tenderness. Yet it's a boisterous and flighty show, intended mainly to make us laugh.
The play begins with a song and ends with a speech. In between, Farquhar ranges from lowdown slapstick to whimsical poesy -- anything goes, as long as the result is a chuckle, or at least a wistful smile. As directed for BAM by Laird Williamson, the evening is best as its opposite extremes: its gentlest moments, and its most outrageous. The end of the first act is irresistible, as Captain Plume reveals depth of feeling and consideration we never dreamed of, transforming his character from likeable rake to lovable romantic. By contrast, another high point happens when the roguish Sergeant Kite sets up a zany fortune-telling operation, as part of a scheme to boost his recruitment quota. This is a set piece of cunningly amusing nonsense.
Unfortunately, most of the production fails to meet the high standards set by these scenes. Though the show moves swiftly, it seems too long, and several episodes run out of steam before they're over. On opening night, moreover, the performances had not jelled into a seamless ensemble. Mr. Worthy was too mild, Pluck was too mannered, Bullock didn't have enough to do, Captain Brazen just wouldn't go away. And more than one actor had trouble getting his mouth around Farquhar's lusty lines.
Returning to the credit side, however, there are strong and crafty performances by Brian Murray, Joe Morton, Jerome Dempsey, and all the women in the cast, headed by Laurie Kennedy, Laura Esterman, Beth McDonald, and Cheryl Yvonne Jones. The sets and costumes are colorful, and F. Mitchell Dana's lighting is singularly graceful.
By its very presence, "The Recruiting Officer" adds vigor and variety to a BAM season that stretches from Sophocles to Brecht, with two plays almost always in repertory. Perhaps as the engagement continues (through Feb. 26), the production will find the comic precision it now misses. Meanwhile, BAM's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" continues through March 29. (The rest of the schedule includes Ibsen's "The Wild Duck," March 5- April 5; Brecht's "Jungle of the Cities," April 9-May 3; and Sophocles's "Oedipus the King," April 16-23.)