For her raucous, lewd “Restoration Comedy,” Amy Freed has ransacked the plots of one minor and one substantial old play to forge a pastiche saluting 17th century mores and stagecraft while skewering today’s aud for presumed prudery and hypocrisy. The Old Globe’s smashingly elegant mounting engages the eye and ear, though by show’s end, the funny bone and heart are somewhat less captivated.
Ralph Funicello’s basic set evokes the Restoration playhouse, with its curtained false proscenium, side boxes and wood-paneled floor. Set brings in a breathtaking variety of cutouts and set pieces to reflect the gamut of that world, from London to the country and from high-born to low, especially as lit by York Kennedy’s breathless candlelight effects.
The wit carries over into the story, derived in act one from Cibber’s “Love’s Last Shift,” in which prim wife Amanda (Caralyn Kozlowski) learns her thought-dead husband Loveless (Marco Barricelli) has, contrary to his name, been indulging in a decade of European licentiousness. She masquerades as a tart to win back his affection and teach him that “fidelity is life’s one remaining novelty.”
Soon he suffers a “Relapse,” the Vanbrugh sequel inspiring act two, and embarks on the seduction of Amanda’s cousin (Christa Scott-Reed). The previously true Amanda then considers a fling with another inappropriately named man, Worthy (Peter Frechette). That’s the throughline, bolstered by Kozlowski and Barricelli as a comically and erotically matched pair; what a Benedick and Beatrice they’d make.
Each act contains multiple, barely related subplots that share only one trait: the conviction that the wicked world is delightful precisely because of its departure from traditional values or, as the fop Sir Novelty (Danny Scheie) concludes, “The joys of love are found in its varieties.”
Not trusting her tale to drive home the point that “though clothes and manners and music may change, some things do not,” Freed includes tacky jokes. The cheap laughs so derived, however, detract from the setting and acting’s verisimilitude.
In a similar vein, helmer John Rando allows too much biz on the frat-skit level. It’s overkill to let no reference to a cavalier’s “spear” or “point” go unremarked upon — as in a character’s “When? At the cock (pause for laughs) crow” — and the handling of the asides seems uncharacteristically inconsistent and sloppy.
Still, the show is well paced, though funniest in the first act before the extraneous plots and repetition — and underhandedness; everyone is corrupt here — become monotonous.
Acting is generally strong, some shaky British accents aside. The highly trained cast knows how to wear Robert Blackman’s stunning costumes, and their comic timing is admirable even if some of the uses to which it’s put are not.
The slight-of-stature Scheie takes full vocal command of the giant stage, turning “Madam” into a six-syllable word. He conveys the era’s sinister side by simultaneously growling and shouting — in a manner one would have thought was exclusive to Maggie Smith — to encapsulate the essential cruelty of the moneyed class.
Other accomplished turns include Kimberly Scott’s rambunctious nurse, Amelia McClain’s lubricious Narcissa and Jonathan McMurtry’s Dame Edna-ish roue, complete with pinafore.
Like the text, Michael Roth’s score looks forward and backward, his jolly harp and harpsichord melodies sharing the stage with the likes of Prince and the Rolling Stones, albeit more fortuitously than the mixture of high classicism and low camp that permeates play and production.