The oddly titled “Or,” is Liz Duffy Adams’ stab at writing a faux Restoration comedy about (and in the style of) noted dramatist, novelist and spy Aphra Behn. While this cheeky pastiche artfully mimics the period style and playfully references the highlights of Behn’s colorful career, its plot and dialogue lack the flashing wit and biting social commentary of high comedy of manners. Behn was no Congreve or Wycherley, but she was still a member of the club and deserves better than this overly mannered production of what is essentially a trivial sex farce.
Since the historical Mrs. Behn probably fabricated a good bit of her own biography (her early adventures in Surinam as the viceroy’s daughter are especially suspect), there are no limits on Adams’ imaginative license, and the plot she concocts here is certainly fanciful.
The play opens with Benn (Maggie Siff) in debtors’ prison, writing a letter (cleverly enough, in light verse) to King Charles II (Andy Paris), prettily requesting payment for her espionage duties in the Hague. The King himself swoops in to rescue her, establishing their historically improbable but dramatically feasible relationship as lovers.
The plot mechanics hold up in subsequent scenes that cast Behn as an enthusiastically reckless lover, dallying with both the king and Nell Gwynne (Kelly Hutchinson), the celebrated actress who became his longtime and publicly acknowledged mistress.
We’re still on solid theatrical ground when Behn’s former lover, the traitorous regicide William Scot (Paris again), appears on the scene, straining the heroine’s loyalties and interfering with her ambitions to become a playwright in this liberated new age.
But once the dramatic situation has been set up, Adams more or less relinquishes any claim to intellectual content or stylistic wit. With Siff (“Mad Men”) reduced to playing Behn’s omnivorous sexual appetite, and Paris and Hutchinson hopping all over the stage in multiple comic roles, the play devolves into low farce.
Adams’ writing is not without grace, which a more assured and classically astute director might have capitalized on. But helmer Wendy McClellan goes for the obvious, forcing the farcical elements and pushing the actors into mannered performances. Like Zane Pihlstrom’s cartoonish set design, the frantic proceedings do engage the brain — but only to give it a really bad headache.