Stephen Jeffreys' comedy-drama The Libertine is a delicious throwback to Restoration times. With Cromwellian Puritanism a thing of the past, the return of the monarchy was an optimal time for an omnisexual, charismatic, downright outrageous character like John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, to barrel into the history books.
War hero, Don Juan, playwright, bawdy poet, master wit, agitator, prisoner, thinker, husband and father, this consummate libertine crammed so much action into his short life—he died in 1680 at 33, probably of venereal disease—it's a marvel Jeffreys' play doesn't run longer than the two-and-a-half-hour span of the new Theatre Row production from Playhouse Creatures.
We know what we're in for from the first scene, when nearly the whole rollicking cast tumbles out of one small four-poster, shrieking with laughter. Yet something's missing: "It's dull without him." Rochester, it turns out, has been sent away for one of his chronic naughtinesses. He's obviously, in a way, beloved. But addressing us in a prologue he challenges us to put aside sympathy, whatever his fate may be (and we suspect it will not be a happy one): "I do not want you to like me."
Rochester—the real one, as well as the one in the play—was a complex fellow indeed. While owing his Earldom to his father's service to the King in exile, he professes hatred of "all monarchs." While running about with prostitutes, the randy Earl (Joseph W. Rodriguez) develops an initially chaste infatuation with the young Mrs. Barry (Patricia Duran), the actress, whom he proceeds to coach to a very successful career. While capable of serious literary effort, he's also the author of frightfully bawdy works, like the poem "Signior Dildo," which occasions the production's pornographic musical number, led by the excellent Ross Bennett Hurwitz as Wilmot's compatriot, the playwright Sir George Etherege. (Etherege wrote The Man of Mode, a 1676 play whose main character was likely modeled on Rochester. The Man of Mode is still performed today.) A selection from Wilmot's poem: