LCT3, Lincoln Center’s off-site developmental lab, is a good place to go shopping for edgy new plays that don’t look like everybody else’s edgy new plays. Case in point: “The Coward,” an absurdist comedy by Nick Jones about a delicate aristocrat youth in 18th-century England who tries to make his father proud by fighting a duel to defend the family honor. Written in the mannered Restoration style of the period (think Congreve and Sheridan), the pastiche gets carried away by its own cleverness, a self-indulgence happily swept aside by the sheer wit of Sam Gold’s stylish production.
Like the coward who is forced into fighting a duel in “The Rivals,” Jones’ aristocratic hero, Lucidus Culling (Jeremy Strong), is constitutionally unfit for such manly games of honor. In Strong’s winsome portrayal of this naive youth — big doe eyes, high-pitched girly voice and no chin to speak of — the innocence of his sissy sensibility is quite endearing.
A budding naturalist whose ambition is to classify butterflies by their beauty, Lucidus feels no need to assert his manhood. He’s content to follow the latest fashions (delicious confections designed by Gabriel Berry) and partake of weekend pie tastings in the park in the company of his best friends, Robert Blythe (Stephen Boyer) and Gavin Klaff (Stephen Ellis).
The affectations of these frivolous young dandies (joyfully played for high camp) may be entirely over-the-top. But the lack of self-consciousness that defines Gold’s directorial style keeps these silly boys from looking like fools. Only Friedmont, the butler played in hilarious deadpan mode by the invaluable Jarlath Conroy, raises an eyebrow in silent commentary on Lucidus’ unorthodox lifestyle.
Unfortunately for our hero, his father, Nathaniel Culling (a robust perf by Richard Poe), is a blustering bully who subscribes to the traditionalnotion that a man is not a man if he’s not killing someone. His code of honor has already sent his older sons to their graves, and now he’s pushing Lucidus onto the dueling field.
In desperation, Lucidus hires Henry Blaine, a hot-blooded man of action in Christopher Evan Welch’s swashbuckling perf, to fight his duel for him. The impersonation works and Lucidus’ reputation soars among his social set. He even wins the heart of that proud beauty, Isabelle Dupree (a priceless comic perf from Kristen Schaal).
But the lowborn Henry doesn’t get the point of upperclass dueling games (“It’s all pageantry”) and by the second act, David Zinn’s elegantly designed stage set is heaped with bodies and swimming in bloody viscera. (Credit for the special effects goes to Waldo Warshaw.)
Although the writing is never less than clever, the play is just too rich for its own good. As the action becomes repetitive, the satirical point of the humor is dulled and everyone looks as if they would welcome a quick exit from all this exhausting fun.