John Malkovich is back home at Steppenwolf, selling out the house nightly in the American premiere of Stephen Jeffreys’ disappointing “The Libertine,” which premiered in 1994 at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
At its core, Jeffreys’ play is a character study of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester (Malkovich). An unabashed cynic and full-blown hedonist who apparently fancied both women and men as sexual partners, Wilmot seems a suitably theatrical subject to tackle. But Jeffreys’ focus too often is not on his central character. The play has more than a few dull patches of idle talk among Wilmot’s chums that add little to our understanding of the protagonist and needlessly lengthen the evening.
Structurally, the play has other flaws. Early on, Jeffreys makes clear that Wilmot has a drinking problem, but then the playwright seems mostly to drop the matter until the Earl suddenly collapses and is near death. The lascivious Wilmot’s ill-fated affair with fiery actress and insistent idealist Elizabeth Barry (Martha Plimpton) is “The Libertine’s” most interesting facet, but Jeffreys take his time developing this key relationship, and it often gets lost in a swirl of peripheral plot concerns.
Late in the second act, however, Jeffreys has inserted a searing passage in which Wilmot and Barry confront each other and finally realize that their sharply conflicting philosophies of life can never be satisfactorily reconciled.
“The Libertine” is written in a way that attempts to meld Restoration and contemporary language. The result is often jarring and rarely as funny as Jeffreys no doubt intended it to be.
If “The Libertine” script is to work, it needs to be given a highly stylized production, and in this regard, director Terry Johnson, himself a playwright of considerable renown in England, has failed. And with the notable exception of Plimpton’s full-throttle portrayal of Barry, the performances Johnson has elicited from his large cast fall flat far too much of the time.
As for Malkovich, he hasn’t made Wilmot an especially compelling figure. Though not intended to be a character of great charm, Wilmot must nonetheless be seen as a fascinating blend of perversities of a particularly British sort. But Malkovich portrays a much more stolid figure, incapable of igniting Jeffreys’ lengthy play. That task is left instead to Plimpton, who gives the role of Barry her all and brings “The Libertine” to life whenever she is onstage.
Derek McLane’s peculiar set uses a number of large wooden beams suspended above the stage and a variety of painted cloth backdrops to suggest a theater’s backstage and a number of other locales. Kevin Rigdon’s lighting casts just the right aura of glowing artifice on the proceedings. Virgil C. Johnson has provided costumes rich in period detail.