My, my, how little the chicanery of warmongering changes in 300 years. George Farquhar's 1706 comedy The Recruiting Officer portrays the efforts of the title character to trick poor young men into military service with promises of career opportunity, adventure and signing bonuses -- and not a little outlandish deception. Even more incisive is the undisguised glee of the upper classes in turning the less fortunate into cannon fodder, contrasted with their anguish at the thought that one of their own loved ones could end up in the army. Of course, they're not above pulling strings, or even bribery, to prevent that.
So bully for the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre for reviving this rambling Restoration comedy. Director Holly Thuma uses every inch of the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre to involve the audience (sometimes literally) in this fast-paced tale of bumpkins, fops, dandies, rakes and high-spirited (and occasionally cross-dressing) maidens.
The primary tale is of two young couples picking their way through the obstacles to True Love. But the more savory satire comes from the unsavory antics of the celebrated Sgt. Kite (Andrew McNally) as he lures recruits for his Captain Plume (JJ Jackson). The dashing Plume -- and Jackson does indeed dash about the theater -- is also the swain of fair Silvia (Lily Junker), certainly among the pluckiest of English ladies to disguise herself as a man, which she does to win hers. Meanwhile, our other young hero, the civilian Worthy (Tom Chun), tricks the disdainful Melinda (Lauren Ann Diesch) back into his arms with the help of one of Kite's ruses for recruiting reluctant soldiers.
Thuma's production fills the theater with live music (composed and arranged by Douglas Levine). The show is also gorgeous, with yummy period costumes by Don Mangone, set by Julie Allardice-Ray, and lighting design by Adrian Rooney. There is the problem of student actors with rushed dialogue and foggy accents, unfortunately burying some great lines, but it is not a universal affliction. The leads are charming, while McNally scores the play's best speech in explaining his credentials. And Patrick Berger nearly steals the show as the over-the-top Capt. Brazen.
This is not a play with subtlety. But the production has spirit, and though its satire can cut close to the bone, it doesn't leave any nasty scars.
The Recruiting Officer continues through Sun., Oct. 21. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. 412-624-7529 or www.play.pitt.edu