Like a Restoration lady of quality, David Grimm’s Measure for Pleasure delights in being overdressed, which unfortunately means that you, like a Restoration rake, have to strip away some of its outer layers of verbal frippery before you can enjoy it. You may notice as you toss them away that some of the frills are prettily embroidered, and what awaits you underneath is a chillingly modern darkness of spirit, but don’t let that stop you. You’re contemporary enough, after all, to cope with a writer who, even at his smiliest, proffers a sensibility as grim as his name.
The story, all seduction schemes and disguises, may be Restoration in spirit, but its charming resolution is out of 18th-century sentimental comedy, with an especially heavy assist from Beaumarchais. The difficulty is that, whenever Grimm’s writing gets genuinely powerful, his bleak modernity shows through both the mock archness and the mock warmth. The characters’ negativity evokes Strindberg and Beckett more readily than Congreve and Sheridan. Additionally, the kind of giggly undergraduate double entendres in which Grimm delights—naming the hero Dick so that the heroine can shout, “I love Dick!” and suchlike—is far from the plain talk that wowed the pit in Charles II’s theatergoing days, when only hypocrites and adulterous wives stooped to euphemism.
Still, Grimm’s power and his verbal gifts are both strongly evident, and Peter Dubois’s rompy production (like the text, too self-consciously arch at times) keeps his dramaturgic balls in the air, thanks especially to Anita Yavich’s gaudily saucy costumes and to a fine cast, with five genuinely first-rate performances: Michael Stuhlbarg as a tormented servant and masquerading fop, Suzanne Bertish as an ego-maddened great lady, Susan Blommaert as a secretly sex-mad Puritan, Euan Morton as a boy whore turned ladies’ maid (yes, all this and Gay Pride lectures too!), and Emily Swallow as the most pertly wicked of good-girl ingenues. With this much talent on display, seeing underneath the frills should be easy enough.