The first three acts of William Congreve's play, The Way of the World (1700), involve little action. The scenes focus on introducing and contrasting characters, highlighting witty dialogue, and slowly revealing details of prior events through casual references. Polite, formalized language disguises selfish motives, rivalries, deceit, and deviousness.
Selfish motives, deciet, and other negative attributes may not seem a proper basis for comedy, and yet The Way of the World warrants four stars. For comparison purposes I strongly recommend reading two other Restoration period comedies: Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675) and Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676). All three plays share a cynical view of the sanctity of marriage and portray a self-centered London society obsessed with extramarital affairs.
The action (certain steps to overcome obstacles to a marriage) in The Way of the World does not occur until the later acts. The marriage between Mirabell and Millamant proceeds only after both are assured that their financial situation will not be jeopardized. Love is secondary. Similarly, the unpleasant situation of Mrs. Fainall - a marriage without any pretence of love - remains unchanged.
While humor may be somewhat sparse in the earlier acts, the tempo clearly picks up in acts four and five. The plot becomes extremely fluid when Mirabell's inventive fraud unravels, and his rival, Mr. Fainall, gains the upper hand. However, the last act offers a delightful twist that puts things right. (Puts things right might be an overstatement given that the play's key characters are somewhat lacking in scruples.)
Although The Way of the World is only occasionally staged today, this play is often assigned reading. My favorite edition is Barron's Educational Series (1958) as it provides plentiful stage directions. In particular, indications of expression - essentially guidance to actors on the proper delivery of the dialogue - are inserted as the dialogue switches from one character to another. Examples include: "somewhat sourly recollecting the rebuff of the previous evening", "using frankness as a bait to draw equal frankness from her companion", and "too preoccupied to pay serious attention". The Barron's edition also has a lengthy introduction by Vincent Hopper and Gerald Lahey, a 5-page note on staging by George Hersey, and illustrations by Fritz Kredel.
A Crofts Classic edition (published 1951, reprinted 1985) provides a useful section titled The Argument of the Play, in which the editor, Henry T. E. Perry, summarizes events that occurred prior to the beginning of the play. (Remember that the dialogue in the early acts slowly - and often obliquely - reveals details of prior events through casual references.) Perry also discusses how William Congreve adroitly used dialogue to reveal much about the personalities of his characters.
The Way of the World can also be found in the Norton Critical Edition (1973) titled Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy. The extensive appendix includes an 80-page section titled Criticism From Lamb to the Present; two articles directly address Congreve's play: The Way of the World by Norman Holland and Form and Wit in The Way of the World by Martin Price.