David Esbjornson’s first season at Seattle Repertory Theater got off to a bumpy start with “The King Stag” and “Purgatorio,” so it’s nice to see audiences relaxing and enjoying themselves again. The agent of their amusement is Amy Freed’s colorful, witty “Restoration Comedy,” which combines and adapts two bawdy 17th century plays about marriage and fidelity. It’s full of delightful insults and stinging observations, and altogether so enjoyable under Sharon Ott’s lively direction that you can forgive the play its structural faults.
The curtain rises on a black-and-white set by Hugh Landwehr that looks like a pop-up version of antique engravings of London. In a brief prologue, we meet a gone-to-the-dogs libertine named John Loveless (Stephen Caffrey), who preps us for an evening of somewhat pointlessly entertaining clothes, manners and music. And that’s exactly what’s delivered over the next two hours and 40 minutes.
The scenario: Unfaithful husband Loveless, who has been roaming the world on a hedonistic binge, learns of his wife’s death in London and decides it’s now safe to return to his stomping grounds. However, his wife, Amanda (Caralyn Kozlowski), turns out to be not the least bit dead, and she promptly tries to woo back her prodigal husband by learning the “art of lewdness.” In the first act (based on Colley Cibber’s “Love’s Last Shift”), she succeeds. In the second (based on John Vanbrugh’s “The Relapse”), Loveless backslides, and Amanda, too, is tempted to stray.
Freed knows well that, as one character puts it, words can be “as intoxicating as flesh,” and the repartee between Loveless and Amanda is as energetic and tantalizing as their sex play.
Adding to the fun are two on-the-side love interests (Suzanne Bouchard as the calculating Berinthia and Neil Maffin as the besotted Ned Worthy); hyper-exaggerated period wigs and costumes by Anna R. Oliver; and some cleverly creative anachronisms (“Damn these minimalist sets,” snipes Loveless, as he trips over a catwalk while supposedly sneaking toward an illicit rendezvous).
The first act finds the right balance between period authenticity and postmodern sensibility, between comedy and character development.
In the second act, though, things start to go haywire. A comic subplot is introduced involving several stock characters (a fop, a hoyden) that serves no apparent structural or narrative purpose. If it were screamingly funny, it wouldn’t matter, but it labors way too hard for laughs. By the time it devolves into a parody of a 21st century fashion show, with thumping contemporary music, one begins to wish fervently for dramaturgical intervention.
Kill the subplot and, bada-bing, you make sense of the story, lose the most awkward anachronisms and shave a half-hour off the running time, all in one fell swoop. So what if this means abandoning Vanbrugh’s original? It’s not exactly a sacred text. And if it makes a lopsided play with a long first half and a short second half, who cares? When was the last time anyone complained about being let out of the theater too early?
Not that there were many audible complaints on opening night. The play is too well cast and directed for that. The four leads are brilliant, masking comically flawed souls with impeccable speech, posture and manners. Caffrey as Lovelace milks this contradiction to the hilt. He’s superbly lecherous, deceitful and appealing, and it’s rare to see an actor onstage looking this pleased with his job — like he can hardly wait for the next line because it’s going to be so good.
Ott also draws terrific perfs from the supporting cast (including Matthew Schneck, Laurence Ballard and Bhama Roget) — even those whose roles seem inconsequential.
It’s worth noting Ott was the a.d. who parted ways with the Rep last year, leaving the door open for Esbjornson. Maybe this is what happens when you leave an arduous job and strike out on your own: You start to have fun again. And if that amusement spills over to the audience, as it does with “Restoration Comedy,” so much the better.