Whether the bawdy comedies of the 17th century Restoration period really need updating for modern audiences is debatable, but the proof is in the uproarious pudding at The Flea, whose resident company, The Bats, agglomerates into a huge cast for Amy Freed’s Restoration Comedy through Dec. 31. Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar with a flourish better described as beneath the rump than over the top, it makes inventive use of a small space with barely any stage furniture and the audience seated on three sides, the visual effects deriving almost entirely from Loren Shaw’s gorgeous costumes.
Whitney Conkling and Seth Moore in Restoration Comedy at The Flea. Photo by Aaron Zebrook
The show starts as a sort of cocktail party in which the cast engages audience members socially, a trick that carries the danger of discomfort but that here feels welcoming, setting off the boisterous mood of the performance to come. The play itself distills two comedies from the 1690s, Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and its fighting sequel, John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse, into two acts bookending a long intermission featuring charming musical acts. The whole three-plus hours go by surprisingly quickly.
James Fouhey and Stephen Stout in Restoration Comedy at The Flea. Photo by Aaron Zebrook
Cibber’s salacious libertine, Loveless (a jubilant James Fouhey), having just returned penurious from a long flight from debt, is fooled by his virtuous wife Amanda (a focused and absolutely delightful Allison Buck) and his buddy Worthy (the worthy Seth Moore) into falling for a mystery woman who is actually Amanda herself. In the sequel Loveless, now freshly devoted to his wife, is tempted by her fetching cousin (Rosa Gilmore, Cymbeline) to relapse, while Worthy reveals his long-suppressed love for Amanda. Need I mention that hijincks ensue? Meanwhile, swishy Lord Foppington (a flamboyantly mouthy Stephen Stout) is swindled by his ne’er-do-well brother and the latter’s scheming lover out of marrying the rustic and zaftig but rich nymphomaniac Hoyden (a triumphant Bonnie Milligan). There’s much chewing of the non-existent scenery, but taking the cake is the fabulous Whitney Conkling who gobbles it up with especially glorious abandon as the brazen Narcissa.
It all plays out in a rainbow of energetically choreographed dance numbers (by Will Taylor), mini-light shows, all manner of physical comedy, bed-hopping, pole dancing, a raft of winkingly winning performances by a juiced-up cast, and, as important as anything, those costumes, ranging from beautiful gowns to gold lamé short-shorts. But it would be all for nought without the foundation of Freed’s nimble script, which weaves florid period prose (and verse) and modern comic witticisms into a nearly seamless tapestry of debauchery and happy endings. Think you need to pay Broadway prices to see a frighteningly talented cast of dozens cavorting in period finery to a Scissor Sisters soundtrack? Think again. Feeling a touch of the holiday season blues? Here’s a fetching antidote.