Some people will tell you that any play bereft of golden phalluses just isn't theatre. While these people probably don't see many shows, there's something to be said for their devotion to the suggestive art of gaudy seduction; and has any genre more fully realized this than Restoration comedy?
Well, there's no shortage of nimble loving - or gold-phallus-adorned codpieces - in David Grimm's new Restoration comedy Measure for Pleasure, which just opened at The Public's Anspacher Theater. It's the show for people who like their laughter loud, their sexual references (implicit and otherwise) frequent, and their verse rhymed - yes, Grimm's play does much to satisfy both the easily titillated and the discriminating classicist alike.
Whether anyone else will have the patience for it is another matter. As directed by Peter DuBois, this is a play willing to go to any lengths to make its points, get its laughs, and even provide some obligatory drama. But so devoted are Grimm and DuBois to hitting all the marks of both Restoration Comedy and contemporary sex farce, they miss the most important ones by forgetting that age-old axiom about the soul of wit.
It wouldn't matter that brevity is not in abundant supply were the entire play as filled with originality as are the first 10 minutes. During that time, aging letch Sir Peter Lustforth (Wayne Knight) lays out his problem in grand expository style: He's stuck with a barren wife (Suzanne Bertish), and hopelessly lusts after the young, virtuous woman (Emily Swallow) once betrothed to a man (Saxon Palmer) she now mistakenly believes is dead.
As the characters parade forth, interacting with the audience, dropping in some contemporary slang (the words "blue balls" are used in their appropriate context) among the finery of Anita Yavich's resplendent costumes and Alexander Dodge's elegant set, and skewering traditional theatrical conventions, you have every reason to expect a briskly paced, cleverly plotted evening as willing to burn the rulebook as to adhere to it.
Clocking in at two and a half hours, however, Measure for Pleasure is roughly too long by a third to sustain itself. Grimm demonstrates an expert ability to lift from and adapt writers as diverse as William Congreve and Oscar Wilde, but has trouble incorporating all such moments into a cohesive, attention-holding whole. There's no shortage of jokes, usually of the most deliciously coarse kind, but as barely integrated here they more readily recall a college drama department's drunken parody night than a reinvigorating of a 340-year-old form.
Grimm's one major contribution, putting a gay spin on the story's parallel couple, also isn't particularly successful: Sir Peter's servant, Will Blunt (Michael Stuhlbarg, of last season's The Pillowman), and the transvestite prostitute-turned-lady's-maid Molly Tawdry (Euan Morton) he romances, are ostensibly where the play's heart resides. But Stuhlbarg and Morton display so little charm together that they subvert Grimm's intent to upend the relentlessly straight (or at least coded) Restoration theatre.
Paradoxically, they're fine apart: Stuhlbarg creates a delightfully earthy groundling, and Morton strikes the right notes of processional and personal uncertainty for a young man with either too little (or perhaps too much) job security. But put them together, and half the play deflates.
DuBois evinced similar trouble eliciting consistency last season, when he directed Peter Dinklage in The Public's wildly uneven Richard III. But he does better by the play and by his actors when he shies away from Grimm's more obvious gimmicks: If Knight is somewhat stiff, his keenly honed comic sense (sharpened in part by his many years on Seinfeld) allows his scenes to crackle when he's paired with Bertish (whose mid-show repudiation of Sir Peter's slights is the play's dramatic highlight), Palmer as Captain Dick Dashwood, or the innocently alluring Swallow as Hermione Goode. Most scenes without Knight cry out for a similarly unique presence almost no one else can provide.
The exception is Susan Blommaert, who plays Hermione's puritanical guardian, Dame Stickle. She brings a committed patrician rigidity to her character that effortlessly scores laughs, whether she's uttering lengthy strings of rhymed couplets (in one of Grimm's more strained running gags) or making inadvertent sexual overtures. ("If I've a crack in me," she tells Sir Peter of her vigilance toward Hermione, "I beg you hunt to seek it out. And should you find my crack, good sir, I pray you fill it up.")
Of course she finds her way to the sex caves of West Wycombe, the den of iniquity where the plot is resolved (and where those gold phalluses prove crucial), reacting with aggrieved horror at the animate and inanimate things she encounters. Desperately trying to maintain her resolve while toeing that very dangerous line between repression and unbound open-mindedness is just the kind of so-old-it's-new idea we've been waiting the whole evening for.
Most of the fun comes from her inability to resist such an intoxicating atmosphere of the anything-goes sexuality she's always argued against. If she is to crack under the strain, it's because she's made her personal borders too thick. When Measure for Pleasure cracks, it's because Grimm hasn't made all of his thick enough.
Measure for Pleasure