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Theatre in Review: Restoration Comedy (The Flea Theatre)

At the Flea these days, they're partying like it's 1696. The theatre has been transformed into a Restoration playhouse, with all its attendant disorder and flirtations. When you enter, a full company of rakes, bawds, harlots, and other embodiments of knavery is already present, partying away; expect saucy comments, as well as the offer of a cocktail or two. Later, there will be food, musical entertainment, and dancing.

And, oh yes, a play. The main event of the evening is Amy Freed's Restoration Comedy, which examines the classic sex comedies of the era through a distinctly modern lens. It is a gloss on two historic texts: Love's Last Shift, Or, Virtue Rewarded, by the actor-manager Colley Cibber, which attempted to mix the scabrous humor of the day with more sentimental, audience-pleasing touches, and The Relapse, Or, Virtue in Danger, John Vanbrugh's answer, which brings Cibber's characters back for a series of franker adventures. (Can you imagine if today's playwrights took part in such shenanigans? Quite apart from the lawsuits, it could be a source of endless fun. Think of Theresa Rebeck penning a sequel to The Anarchist, in which Patti LuPone and Debra Winger team up to challenge the corrupt male power structure of the prison system. But I digress.) The Relapse was spicy enough to inspire one of the era's many pamphlet wars, launched by Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Naturally, The Relapse was a box office smash, saving the fortunes of the company that presented it.

Restoration Comedy combines the plots of Love's Last Shift and The Relapse into an extravaganza of seduction, abandonment, disguises, and double-dealing. The plotting is pure Restoration, the language much more contemporary. It centers on Lawless, a rake of epic proportions, who has been on a ten-year tear marked by endless boozing and sex with just about anything that moves. His re-appearance upsets his wife, Amanda, a pillar of virtue, who has recently come into a fortune. Appalled to learn of her husband's return, she allows her male friend Worthy -- a reformed hellion who secretly loves her -- to instruct her in the art of being a coquette. She plans to disguise herself as a creature of volcanic passions, holding Loveless in sexual slavery without revealing her true identity; it's a plot that works all too well. Meanwhile Tom, the impecunious brother of Sir Novelty Fashion, the fop -- he looks like a kind of 17th-century Perez Hilton -- decides to trick his unsympathetic sibling out of a lucrative marriage to a wealthy country lass.

Restoration Comedy has many amusing moments. I enjoyed the sight of Loveless, tied up, being read passages from Fanny Hill by his servant, Snap. ("Wonderful book. Ahead of its time," Lawless says, admiringly.) "God, these minimalist sets!" snaps Loveless, as he searches for a spot to hide in a particularly embarrassing moment. Tom, spying a picture of his brother's rustic fiancée, notes, "She kind of reminds me of Alexander Pope." (This is a kind of in-joke, as Colley Cibber was one of the primary victims of The Dunciad, Pope's take-no-prisoners satire of the intellectual follies of the day.)

Under the ebullient direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, there are fine contributions from James Fouhey, whose Loveless is either exhausted from some orgy or eagerly on the hunt for new sensations; Allison Buck as Amanda, tossing her fan in the air and leaping, none too comfortably, into a variety of seductive poses; Stephen Stout as Sir Novelty, turning each line into a festival of sibilants as he models an ever-more-outrageous series of costumes; and Seth Moore as Worthy, his conscience twisting elegantly as he tutors the woman he wants for himself in the ways of seduction.

This is one case where the play is hardly the thing, however; whatever Freed's intentions were, Restoration Comedy plays like a pale imitation of the real thing, preserving the convoluted plots of the genre without matching the wit of its dialogue. She indulges in worn-out double-entendres that show how desperate she is to keep things properly salacious. "I don't doubt that you can rise to the occasion," says Amanda to Loveless. "I care not a frig," says the empty-headed Narcissa. "That's fig, you idiot," says her companion, Hillaria. She also fails to restrain herself from giving a minor character, a maid, the name of Fistula. Some of the physical business is equally tired. Hoyden, Sir Novelty's wife-to-be, is trapped in a chastity belt, leading to all sorts of not-very-funny horsing around.

But Iskandar and company are less interested in staging Restoration Comedy than in making it a component of an evening's entertainment that finds a modern analogy to the riotous entertainments of the 17th century. Following the pre-show get-together, there's a lengthy intermission, complete with more drinks and passed hors d'oeuvres; various groups of performers get up and deliver musical numbers. The action of the play is interrupted for dances, fashion parades, and a voguing session packed with wanton women and gay party boys. He also adds some extratextual plot developments that expand on Freed's theme of sexual liberation, turning Tom and Lory, his accomplice, into latent homosexuals who are surprised to find themselves together in a clinch. When a happy ending is finally reached, the theatre is instantly transformed into a discotheque, with the audience invited to join in.

Furthermore, there's plenty of amusement to be had in Loren Shaw's costumes, which range from dazzling period creations -- all damasks and pearls -- to outfits that bridge the modes of 1696 and today. Sir Novelty's outfits are all laugh-getters, culminating in a towering wig that contains a birdcage and is outlined in what looks like fiber-optic lights. Julia Noulin-Merat's playhouse setting features some charming scenic painting. Daniel B. Chapman's lighting design reconfigures the stage as the action moves from location to location. The sound design, by Jill BC DuBoff and Jeremy Bloom, artfully blends effects, such as birdsong and the sound of arriving carriages, with a parade of disco hits.

Indeed, the lengthy evening - more than three hours -- is carried by the Bats, the Flea's company of bright young talents, who make us accomplices in their raucous party-animal activities. In addition to those mentioned above, there are delightful contributions from Erik Olson as Tom, Brantley Brice as Lory, Bonnie Milligan as Hoyden, and Rosa Gilmore as the air-headed playgirl who wins Loveless' undying attention.

Restoration Comedy isn't a very terribly good play, but it provides a solid basis for an evening of carousing dreamed up by Iskandar and the Bats. In fact, the Bats, who combine solid technical skills with a we'll-try-anything insouciance, ought to take a flyer on a real Restoration comedy, say The School for Scandal. Something tells me they'd be more than up to the task.--David Barbour

(10 December 2012)

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