It’s all-stops-out over at the Royal National Theater, where Trevor Nunn’s production of “The Relapse” (staged with assistance from Stephen Rayne) is utilizing every ounce — and probably many a penny — of the resources that a major subsidized theater uniquely has at its disposal. Is the physical lushness and elegance worth it? Unforgettably, as long as Alex Jennings is seizing center-stage, playing a Lord Foppington so full of tomfoolery that he suggests a periwigged Elton John gone gloriously over the top, and beyond. When Jennings is absent from proceedings, “The Relapse” tends to lag, dragged down by a listless pair of romantic leads and a ludicrously barnstorming appeal to the audience from a burly Brian Blessed. Still, put those lapses aside, feast on the decor and let a sashaying Jennings do the rest: Extravagance has rarely been so exquisite.
It’s a shame that Lord Foppington is a subsidiary character, since he’s far more entertaining than virtually anything else on designer Sue Blane’s richly appointed stage. The scenic conceit — Sir John Vanbrugh’s 1696 satire is itself taking place inside a theater — is easy on the eye (those Boucher-like backdrops!) but not always helpful to the actors. There can be something decidedly disconcerting about an onstage audience chortling merrily away at events when the actual theatergoer is patiently marking time.
Vanbrugh’s play centers around Ned Loveless (James Purefoy), an erstwhile rake who has abandoned “that uneasy theater of noise” — the stage metaphor again — that is London for a quiet country life with wife Amanda (Imogen Stubbs). Drawn to the city for the season, Loveless must confront temptation: Will he fall back into his libido-led follies of old or remain steadfast to a spouse whose sprightly cousin Berinthia (Claire Price), a young widow, is busy hatching her own amorous schemes? (The narrative is a send-up of “Love’s Last Shift,” a contemporary comedy from Colley Cibber featuring a repentance to which Vanbrugh felt he could not relate.)
True to the Restoration ethos, Vanbrugh holds out little hope for marital constancy, especially in the presence of a local gentleman, Worthy (Adrian Lukis), who — naturally — could not be more ironically named. Feminine guile is one obstacle in “The Relapse” but so is male weakness, which makes for a mating dance far more delicate than the fencing matches that spill animatedly across the stage. (The fight director is the invaluable Malcolm Ranson.)
For a play fueled by erotic deception, Purefoy and Stubbs could jointly up the sexual ante, with gifted newcomer Price left to bubble away delightfully in a near-vacuum. (Her opening soliloquy gets the play off to a fizzy start.) The ancillary plot, meanwhile, is laboriously driven by “Cats” alumnus Blessed, his blustery Sir Tunbelly Clumsey (!) suggesting a Brueghel painting come to life if not — par for the course with this actor — to intelligibility.
And yet, all cavils are swept away given the manicured swell that Jennings is able to cut, Lord Foppington’s daily ablutions a lengthy levee that would make France’s own Sun King smile. (It’s hard to believe that on other nights in the Olivier, the same actor can be found mining rigorous depths of anger and regret as Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.”) “Nice cuffs,” he pauses to remark to Loveless, their rapiers poised. And then it’s back to combat for a figure of aggrieved fastidiousness entrusted to a player who can turn every lowered eyebrow into high comic art.