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Guthrie stages another perfect comedy

Peter Michael Goetz (Herbert Soppitt) and Patricia Conolly (Clara Soppitt) are shown in the the Guthrie production of J.B. Priestley's "When We Are Married," directed by John Miller-Stephany. (T. Charles Erickson/Guthrie Theater)

"Marriage is like paying an endless visit in your worst clothes." -- J.B. Priestley (1894-1984)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Although the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is best known as the place to see Shakespeare and classic drama, Guthrie also knows exactly how to stage a perfect comedy. The current "When We Are Married" by British playwright J.B. Priestley (continuing through Aug. 30) is probably my all-time favorite of various comedies I've seen there over the years.

The story marks an anniversary for three couples living in Yorkshire, England who shared the same wedding ceremony 25 years earlier and have now gathered to celebrate. Still close friends, the six of them are looking forward to a wonderful evening at one of their homes, only to discover, after dinner, that the minister who had performed the wedding rites had left some official forms unsigned, and all three pairs are not legally married.

The play is set in 1908; in that era if such news leaked out, a dreadful scandal would ensue. But there's no hope of keeping this turn of events secret. A charwoman employed at the house has been listening just outside the drawing room door and learns about the circumstances at the same time the horrified husbands hear what has happened, before they have a chance to inform their wives.

Since the wives have been a bit arrogant regarding their superior social status, the charwoman immediately tells them that now she's as good as they are. "No, I'm better," she boasts, "because I'm a respectable married woman!" The perky Cockney maid adds to the ladies' distress by singing a silly little song about marriage: "To be together, side by side, hand in hand."

The three couples, who considered themselves happy and successful, are suddenly faced with serious challenges. A first thought is outrage at the minister. Next, several think: do we even want to be married to this person? One husband, whom the others consider "henpecked," speaks up: "I'm going to do what I want for a change." A wife muses about the men she could have married.

All three aggrieved women have the same reaction: "They couldn't even get us married right" and "we've given those men the best years of our lives." Although the ending is somewhat predictable, watching the way the couples get there is most entertaining.

The charm of "When We Are Married" lies not only in the humorous situations and snappy dialogue created by Priestley but in the excellent performances by 14 Guthrie actors. Peter Michael Goetz (often seen in Shakespearean roles and as Ebenzer Scrooge) and Patricia Conolly, Linda Kelsey and Raye Birk, Helen Carey and Dennis Creaghan are exactly right in their portrayals of the three couples. Also memorable is Sally Wingert as the flamboyant mistress of one of these gentlemen. She turns up in the second act just as this unfortunate situation couldn't get much worse.

Barbara Bryne delights as the charwoman while Cockney maid Maggie Chestovich brightens up the scene whenever she enters. Colin McPhillamy makes a really funny photographer. A young newly-engaged pair, Jonas Goslow and Christine Weber, are fine additions to the polished cast.

Bryne, Goetz and Wingert have each been in more than 60 productions at Guthrie. Our front row seats gave us a splendid opportunity to watch the facial expressions of every one of this talented ensemble.

Priestley, novelist, playwright and essayist, is best known for the mystery "An Inspector Calls" and for his novel "The Good Companion." Noteworthy, too, are his many comedies that feature Dickensian-type characters and dialogue that catches the Yorkshire speech patterns.