As her Beard of Avon did with the Shakespeare canon in 2001, Amy Freed’s newest play explores and expands on the literature of classic British theater. Coated in the finery and flippancy of its namesake, Restoration Comedy sets about seducing the old form with lively wordplay as foreplay. Under director John Rando's guiding hand, the current mounting at the Old Globe (through April 8) again reveals Ms. Freed's special gift for linking past and present in affectionate parody that is equal parts love-making and lampooning.
From its deceptive plotlines to its plunging necklines, Restoration Comedy embodies the stay-popping abandon that briefly swelled the English stage in the second half of the 17th Century. The Puritan-scattering return of Charles II in 1660 launched a half-century of change. After attending French theater, where unlike the British stage women’s parts required actors with women’s parts, Charles immediately ordered an end to the playing of female characters by boys. Plays of sexuality, clever plotting, and witty dialogue now filled the theaters.
Women flourished in all aspects of show business. Playwright Aphra Behn became the first woman writer of any kind to be published in England. Fifty other plays by women were published during the period, surely a mere fraction of the total written and produced. By 1710, the censorious spoilsports had rallied in enough density to demand an end to all the fun. These wet blankets quickly covered cleavage, revoked licentiousness, and damped the flame of artistic freedom. No female British playwright would achieve the success of Susannah Centlivre, whose 1709 The Busybody was one of the period’s last hits, until Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap more than two centuries later.
Ms. Freed hangs her attachment for the period on two plays: Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. Cibber’s story introduces the adulterous Loveless who becomes obsessed with his own wife Amanda only after she seduces him pretending to be a prostitute. Vanbrugh set the more cynical (and still produced) Relapse to begin at the end of Colley’s tale, where Loveless, more true to the form, can’t resist returning to womanizing and leaves Amanda again.
Ms. Freed makes it a trilogy of sorts by incorporating the first two, moving Amanda to the center of the story, giving Loveless a final mistress who is his moral match, and giving Amanda an adoring suitor who is hers. In doing so, the writer keeps the spirit and themes — sexual addiction, the Madonna-prostitute conundrum, and marital incompatibility — of the originals while adding a contemporary sensibility.
As Loveless, the wonderful Marco Barricelli kicks things off by bounding through the fourth wall like a Catskill emcee, introducing himself and his story in rhyming couplets. Ms. Freed also has the actor inside the character come through, suggesting in asides that the acting company's main interest in the play is getting to wear the lavish costumes. He also promises to drop the antique meter.
Loveless, we learn, has returned from France in need of restocking the finances he’s frittered. He is a man of sufficient appetite for women and wine that he chewed through his marriage tether years ago. From afar he heard that his wife was dead. His wife Amanda (Kozlowski), meanwhile, has been led to believe the same thing about him. Loveless' old friend Worthy (Frechette) has been assuaging his secret love for Amanda by buttering up the empty-headed but dowry-heavy Narcissus (Amelia McClain). When he stumbles upon the just-returned Loveless he quickly hatches a plot. He presents the plan to Loveless as in his best interest and to Amanda as in hers, while actually the whole thing is designed to collapse in Worthy’s lap where he hopes Amanda will opt to stay.
A secondary plot underscores the real dilemma of men born after the eldest son. Only the first-born received inheritance under the structure then. To secure income, the rest married for dowry and not for love. The father and son Fashions (Danny Scheie as Sir Novelty and Michael Izquierdo as his scion) bring in this aspect as they pursue Hoydon (McClain again in double-casting that gets a bit confusing). Sheie has a great comic turn as Ms. Freed's recreation of Lord Foppington, a character who in Vanbrugh's Relapse was first played by Colley Cibber, the writer of the play that started the whole affair.
Barricelli is a must-see for fans of classic theater. His performances, which never overshadow, are powered by a rare quality of both detailed mastery and unbridled brio. In Kozlowski, Ms. Freed has lucked into another rare creature. Amanda has been her role in all of the play's first three productions and it is clear why. She convincingly moves from guarded “widow” to pain-inducing temptress. Mr. Frechette's delightfully idiosyncratic delivery gives his Worthy enough quirk to keep him from being too honorable.
Ralph Funicello’s stage-on-stage set is arguably the most fitting scenic design we've seen in this space. In tone and texture it completes the theater’s interior as sincerely as if he’d repaired a wooden bowl. Upon entering the house, there is a sense that he went back to hundred-year-old blueprints to restore the theater to the original look. Its two portals, with second story landings, bring the curve of house balconies through the proscenium and halfway upstage. Its curtains, combining fabric, and painted flat are drawn — pinned and penned — open.
Under York Kennedy’s pre-show lighting, the simple but evocative stage readies the audience for Restoration Comedy's blurring of classic and contemporary periods. Like the baseball fan who arrives before the players take the field, the early arrival at the Old Globe has a contemporary environment upon which to muse on tradition, certainly as far back as the Restoration.
CREDITS By Amy Freed, directed by John Rando WITH Marco Barricelli, Chris Bresky, Chip Brookes, Peter Frechette, Cara Greene, Rhett Hinkel, Michael Izquierdo, John Keating, Caralyn Kozlowski, Amelia McClain, Jonathan McMurtry, Aaron Misakian, Danny Scheie, Kimberly Scott, Christa Scott-Reed, Summer Shirey, Kate Turnbull PRODUCTION Ralph Funicello, set; Robert Blackman, costumes; York Kennedy, lights; Paul Peterson, sound; Michael Roth, music; Diana Moser/Jenny Slattery, stage managementOld Globe Theatre (mainstage), March 8 – April 8, 2007