Virtue may be its own reward, but it's devilishly hard to play. Case in point: Helena, the unremittingly decent heroine of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well," who cures an ailing king and is beloved by all except her husband, Bertram; he rudely jets off into battle to avoid the nuptial bed. Helena is a long-suffering maiden who labors nobly to prove the worth we can see from the start.
In other words, she can be a terrible bore, unless an actress is able to inject a glint of calculation or conflict into the part. In Darko Tresnjak's handsome but hollow new production for Theater for a New Audience, Kate Forbes traipses into all the traps of idealized goodness: her Helena is unfailingly solicitous, obsequious, blandly cheery, faintly self-pitying. It's enough to make you want to take her aside and say, "Bertram is just not that into you."
As her ungrateful betrothed, Lucas Hall is similarly one-note. True, Bertram is an unredeemed rake until nearly the final curtain. But in Hall's rendition, Bertram is an eye-rolling punk, which makes us wonder not only at Helena's infatuation but at the quality of his upbringing by the doting Countess of Rossillion (Laurie Kennedy). The mismatch of these two lovers is Shakespeare's subversive point, of course, but the disconnect would register more bittersweetly if it seemed that each of them could actually appeal to somebody.
Tresnjak has matched much of the show's pacing to the funeral marches that begin and end the play. The production has a stately look, with Linda Cho's Edwardian costumes and David P. Gordon's Italianate marble set. But its rhythms are plodding and deliberate. Even the clowns don't provide enough of a kick. As the bumpkin fool Lavatch, the bear-like John Christopher Jones delivers his lines with a sleepy sneer that suggests W.C. Fields. As the dandy rogue Parolles, the reedy, red-haired Adam Stein cuts a subtle, insinuating figure, but his underplaying, like much of the production, is altogether too restrained.
Michael Feingold is credited as dramaturg, which means he's made some judicious cuts and added diverting gibberish language to a mock-interrogation scene. This soldier's prank, which has shades of Falstaff's humiliation in "Henry IV, Part 1," becomes by default the show's climax, as it's staged with more vigor than anything else. The interpolation of scene-setting songs in French and Italian is a distinctive and lovely touch.
The lugubrious tone is set by the ailing French king (George Morfogen), who, despite reviving from a debilitating illness, delivers his lines with deathbed gravity. There's something to be said for the fidelity of Tresnjak's sober take on this bleakest of Shakespeare's romances. But, as one young audience member was heard to ask his mom at intermission, "Didn't you say this was a comedy?"