Sharon Ott, whose charmed life seemed to fall under some sort of curse when she helmed Seattle Rep, is back directing the ritzy, bitchy world premiere of Restoration Comedy by the subversively scholarly Stanford prof Amy Freed (through Sat.,Jan. 7, at Seattle Repertory Theatre; 206-443-2222, www.seattlerep.org). It's gorgeous, sexy, funny, and, for the most part, dazzlingly acted. If it's a succession of brilliant bits more than a coherent whole, and not quite the home-run smash hit the Rep could use these days, it's still a must-see, so smart that even its problems are fascinating.
It's a shotgun wedding of two plays, Colly Cibber's 1696 Love's Last Shift; or, the Fool in Fashion and the sequel by John Vanbrugh, The Relapse: or, Virtue in Danger. The virtue in danger is that of Amanda. True to her name, she's very lovable indeed, as played by the stupefying beauty Caralyn Kozlowski in Anna R. Olivier's flattering costumes. They're not mere adornment, nor does the stunning loveliness of Hugh Landwehr's Hogarthian set exist for its own pretty sake. Every element of the production—Freed's witty, glittery dialogue (updated with traces of Restoration rhetoric), the harpsichord trills of Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman's delightful sound design, the vainglorious gestures devised by period movement coach Art Manke—conspires to produce an effect of enveloping sensual concupiscence.
How can the virtuous Amanda prevail in such a world, when her husband Loveless (Stephen Caffrey) is a hopeless horndog baying drunkenly after strange butt? (He puts it more epigrammatically.) By getting down and dirty and competing with the sirens serenading her man. Loveless is back in London after seven years abroad resembling a Led Zeppelin tour. His old pal Worthy (Neil Maffin) tells him Amanda's dead, then uses his own wicked experience to help Amanda impersonate a new mistress to seduce her errant husband back into the marriage bed. Kozlowski plays the bit wonderfully, and Caffrey makes a cunning bum. Maffin speaks and moves with admirably chiseled precision, but lacks passion and fails to transcend the worthy character's blandness. The voluminously bosomed Laura Kenny is absolutely superb as Amanda's pal Hillaria, than whom none is more hilarious.
Cibber ridiculed upper-class twits by inventing the outrageous Sir Novelty Fashion, a role he wrote for himself. The playwright was a shrimpy, helium-voiced, Capote-ish wimp; this production's Sir Fashion, Jonathan Freeman, plays him like a circus strongman with a booming bark, and it works great.
Love's Last Shift was a supremely influential hit because audiences could savor the sin, then sentimentally weep to see virtue win out. Since we're not apt to weep over virtue regained, most moderns will prefer the second act, fashioned from The Relapse, to the first—it's closer to our cynicism. Loveless relapses at the sight of a second knockout, his wife's cousin Berinthia (Suzanne Bouchard—can she slink and wink!), pitching illicit woo to the willing widow while Worthy unworthily courts Amanda.
Sir Fashion returns sporting the world's biggest wig and an uppity new title, Lord Foppington (his Lagerfeld fashion show parody scene is a mild hoot). He's courting a chimplike white-trash nouveau-riche gal, Hoyden (Bhama Roget). Roget ain't subtle, but she's funny, not only as Hoyden but as Amanda's dim-witted fellow fan-flapper Narcissa. Fashion's kid brother (Matthew Schneck) attempts to heist Hoyden's hand in a scene featuring the year's best acting by a moving piece of scenery depicting her entire angry clan. Laurence Ballard pulls off a Peter Sellers feat in four clown roles, the most impressive of which is a gay matchmaker with a sinister little lipstick heart on his kisser.
There's no point criticizing Freed for turning two plays into one—Restoration playwrights did the same to Molière and others. Freed is true to Cibber and Vanbrugh, in her fashion. But continuing characters do not a plot make. Subplots, proliferating like kudzu, entertainingly alternate without generating narrative momentum or commenting intelligibly on one another. It's too damn long, the pacing aimless and slowish. Freed's mostly prose dialogue often sparkles, but one misses the more continuous rhythmic scintillation of, say, Richard Wilbur's verse translations. It's all luxurious surface and shallow laughs; our lack of respect for virtue deprives the show of emotional oomph. But what a surface!