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:
Our dainty fine Dutchesse’s have got a Trick
To Doat on a Fool, for the Sake of his Prick,
The Fopps were undone, did their Graces but know
The Discretion and vigor of Signior Dildo.
Eric Tucker fleetly directs a nimble cast of well-drawn characters, vividly evoking the scramble that goes on backstage at a theater, the clash of wits at the public house, and carefree rutting in a dark prostitutes’ alley. Ms. Duran is wonderful as a proto-feminist Mrs. Barry; Tom O’Keefe is superbly in-the-moment in the dual roles of Rochester’s wry friend Charles Sackville and the smug star actor Harry Harris; and the fine Libby Arnold as the prostitute Jane has a lovely scene battling an annoying inclination to actually care about her client the Earl. Indeed, the whole cast does much good work.
The production’s flaw arises from the Earl’s complexity. Not having seen the play before—not even the movie version with Johnny Depp—I can’t say how others have approached the lead role. Mr. Rodriguez fails to entirely convince, because his Rochester lacks the charm the real Earl must have oozed. Rodriguez is agile enough to show us several sides of this antihero; for example, the scene where he leads his friends in smashing the King’s prize sundial to bits is a thrilling highlight of the show, and a subtler one is his wretched squirming to escape the obligation to pose for a portrait with his wife, played by the willowy Sarah Koestner, who makes a fine foil to—well, everyone—as the sole character with a sense of propriety. She alone seems to grasp the key to Wilmot’s character, that he “cannot allow of a power that is stronger than yourself”—a deeper insight than his own observation that “it’s my genius to go too far.” But each aspect of him carries at least a tinge of the grump; and his tendency to stand face-still when he’s being addressed prevents him from fully registering as the preternaturally charismatic chap who was the center of a famous round-table of wits and an effortless melter of the hearts of ladies and young men. Has Jeffreys integrated all of this on the page enough for any actor to make a complete success of the role? I’m not sure. A tough role it certainly is, and Rodriguez tackles it with focus and muscularity. But it left me unsatisfied.