Considering it’s almost four centuries old, “The Gentleman Dancing-Master” still delivers quite a kick. Written in 1672 by William Wycherley, that bawdy master of Restoration comedy, the play is just now receiving its New York premiere at the Pearl Theater Company. Its sharp insights into sex, hypocrisy and feminine wit make it a worthy find.
As proved by this serviceable but uninspired production, Wycherley’s play belongs to a genre that’s very tricky to stage. On the one hand, words fly out of characters’ mouths at breakneck speed, often spinning complicated metaphors that require careful attention to be understood. On the other, almost all that fancy language describes gleefully immoral sex, so the cerebral control of language should be matched with lusty comic timing. Everyone, in other words, needs to be thinking with what’s below the belt as well as what’s above.
To their credit, the Pearl’s team has mastered the brainier elements. As directed by Gus Kaikkonen, the ensemble impressively navigates the complex plot, which centers around young Hippolita (Marsha Stephanie Blake) trying to marry handsome Gerrard (Bradford Cover), despite the fact that dear old dad wants her to wed foppish cousin Paris (Sean McNall). A clever girl, Hippolita decides to trick her father, Mr. Formal (Dan Daily), by pretending Gerrard is her dance instructor.
The expected hijinks and weddings ensue, but it’s clear the ensemble has gleaned Wycherley’s larger point about the idiocy of men who pretend to be sophisticated. The actors speak clearly and well, turning their heads at just the right moment to make sure we’ve caught the sly putdowns. Yet that intellectual understanding rarely translates to vivid acting. There’s persistent lifelessness in comic scenes that deserve rapid wit, as though the cast can’t transform table work into truly inhabited perfs.
This is especially true of Blake, who lacks spontaneity while Hippolita whimsically moves in and out of heat for Gerrard. Laboriously moving between facial expressions and body posture, her actor’s process is always clear.
Rough edges also poke through Kaikkonen’s work. When there’s more than one thing happening at a time — say, a fight between Paris and Formal while Hippolita and Gerrard steal kisses in the background — the moments play like separate scenes, never blending into a unified stage picture. Potential for laughs is wasted because there’s no interplay between the timing of each event.
Only McNall and Daily seem effortless. The former plays the rare fop who actually evolves — affecting first a French demeanor then a Spanish one — but he gives Paris an immutable core of self-satisfaction. The production’s highlights come during his catty spats with an equally blustery Daily. Hands and kerchiefs flailing, the two men grasp the spirit of the period and the piece.
Their triumph would be better served on a set equally in tune with the material. Susan Zeeman Rogers, however, has been tasked with designing one stage for the Pearl’s entire season, and though her abstract, slightly oppressive collection of slanted walls and dark blue paint supports the darker spirit of upcoming shows like “Measure for Measure” and “Mary Stuart,” it works against Wycherley’s gay debauchery.
Perhaps in a suppler playing space, more of the script’s sex and sarcasm could have found its way to the stage.