In “Measure for Pleasure,” saucy scribe David Grimm (“Kit Marlowe”) has penned an extremely stylish (and exuberantly filthy) sex farce that’s just the thing to get us through the dark days of Lent. Set in Restoration England and adhering more or less faithfully to period theatrical conventions, clever show sends up both Puritan morality and libertine licentiousness to make its timeless romantic pitch for guilt-free sex in all its permutations. Although the orientation of the comedy is decidedly gay, its cheery message (“Go be happy”) embraces horny folks of all ages and sexual persuasions. This is an orgy to which all are graciously invited.
Any complaint about the show’s knee-buckling length should take into account the daunting logistics of the plot, which owes as much to Oscar Wilde as it does to Wycherley or Congreve. While jam-packed with duels, deceits, disguises and other tomfoolery, the structure supporting all these hijinks is a solid piece of engineering, and Peter DuBois has directed all of its nonsensical business with extraordinary panache.
At the centerpiece of this complicated romance is Molly Tawdry (Euan Morton), a fetching transvestite prostitute who breaks the heart of Will Blunt (Michael Stuhlbarg), the valet who adores her, by falling madly in love with Captain Dick Dashwood (Saxon Palmer), a handsome womanizer who is angling to outwit the puritanical Dame Stickle (Susan Blommaert) and seduce her charge, the virginal Hermione Goode (Emily Swallow), before she is despoiled by that licentious aristocrat Sir Peter Lustforth (Wayne Knight), whose designs on the girl are constantly being thwarted by his sexually demanding wife, Lady Vanity Lustforth (Suzanne Bertish), who also happens to be hooker-turned-maid Molly Tawdry’s mistress. Phew!
But even as he sets the stage for a lighthearted sex farce, Grimm turns the theatrical form over his knee by replacing all the conventional literary euphemisms with sexually explicit dialogue and downright raunchy dramatic action. Instead of showing her affection for Will Blunt by, say, darning his socks, Molly gets down on her knees and gives him a blowjob. And rather than hint suggestively at what they’d like to do on a boys’ night out, Sir Peter and Captain Dick simply strap on gigantic gold-plated penises and head for the whorehouse.
The language alone is enough to melt the plaster off the gigantic friezes (the creations of Alexander Dodge) depicting hilariously outre sexual positions that decorate the vestibule of the orgy pit.
That all these outrageous antics raise laughter rather than horrified shock has something to do with the comic integrity of the acting, which is classy in the extreme. Stuhlbarg and Swallow carry it off with Shakespearean earnestness. Morton draws on the winsome ways of a Dickensian heroine. Bertish applies the wit of Moliere. And at the helm, director DuBois takes care that no one stoops to vulgarity.
But on a more intrinsic level, the sexual explicitness holds up because it is actually faithful to the spirit of the Restoration period, which, frankly, was even more licentious than our own. In his slyly witty way, Grimm has done nothing more outrageous than adding a few modern reference points.