How do you scandalize a modern audience watching a Restoration comedy like John Vanbrugh’s naughty 1697 immorality play of bad manners? Any way you can, if you’re Mark Wing-Davey, judging from the Brit director’s radical take on the goings-on among the rich and libidinous in 17th century London. So the wigs get tossed and the petticoats go flying, replaced by red leather and black Spandex. Instead of a stroll in the park, there’s a trip to the red light district. And gone are the Brit accents, replaced by characters using a Southern drawl while munching on contemporized speeches and crudities.
But for all the conceptual huffing and puffing, this nearly three-hour endeavor isn’t startling so much as desperate to find some way to give life to this strange and foreign world of manners, marriage and sex. The result is the opposite of what may be intended. The modernist interpretation doesn’t draw us in so much as it keeps us out through its stark and stylized approach.
The prologue, spoken by a casually dressed Remo Airaldi invading a lineup of characters in 17th century period attire, makes it clear that this is no minuet. Referring to “the People’s Republic of Cambridge,” we are put on notice that a revolutionary, deconstructionist take on the play is about to unfold.
Wing-Davey compartmentalizes the characters and situations quite literally. In the vast white stage of the Loeb, Marina Draghici’s equally spare sets are rolled out as if they were file drawers in a cabinet. (In one case, a Plexiglas box platform allows a character to play racquetball, perhaps a sly reference to the tennis-court theaters of the playwright’s day. Still, it’s a major effort to little effect.)
But the game of sex is what’s being played onstage, centering on the awful marriage of the aristocratic Brutes. He is a drunk, carouser and abuser, played with primal gusto by Bill Camp. Lady Brute (Kate Forbes), in turn, seeks her own escape into a sexual fantasy on the verge of becoming a reality.
Her smitten amour (Peter Rini), his anti-romantic buddy (handsomely played by Adam Dannheisser), a ready-to-bloom niece (a lackluster Deborah Knox Meschan) and a big belle of a rival (Effie Johnson in “Designing Woman” mode) all conspire in the licentious plot. Karen MacDonald marvelously plays a wicked French maid.
But whether it’s the cavernous stage or the provok’d directorial style, the actors play in oversized strokes, and while they may hit the comic target on occasion, the play’s themes are muddied in the mess. Only Forbes and Rini root their wild detours in any sense of reality.
The age-old dance of those who strain and sweat in the struggle between public virtue and private fact certainly has contemporary parallels. But in Wing-Davey’s production, those connections are lost among the far-flung directorial conceits. And that’s a scandal.