We get so little Restoration comedy in New York that we owe the Pearl Theatre Company a triple vote of thanks: for bringing back a classic specimen of the form; for choosing a gem that’s long been off the usual classroom lists; and for giving their choice a production that’s well above adequate. The Constant Couple was George Farquhar’s second play, written in 1699, when he was just 21. It lasted as a standard piece all through the 18th century and the Regency, not fading from the stage until Victorian propriety made its central story impermissible. When the genre came back in the 20th century, Farquhar’s comedy was overshadowed by his two later masterpieces, The Beaux’ Stratagem and The Recruiting Officer. As Jean Randich’s production for the Pearl handily demonstrates, this overshadowing did a grave injustice to a play both funny and verbally fresh, which, although built on a more conventional structure than Farquhar’s later works, twists that structure inside out in ways that predict the future of English comedy.
People use the phrase “Restoration comedy” far too loosely, often applying it mistakenly even to Sheridan’s plays, which premiered more than a century after Charles II was “restored” to the English throne in 1660. The rage for this peculiar mode of urban sex comedy—arrogant, dark-spirited, and salacious—was already on the wane by the time Farquhar, a failed actor barely turned 20, came to London from Dublin to try his hand at playwriting. The small indoor theaters with their overpriced tickets that had been the bastions of aristocratic privilege in Charles II’s day, showing works by Etherege and his ilk that reflected the newly empowered royalist audience’s snobberies, had long since been rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate the rising middle class. By the late 1690s, snobbery was out and mercantilism was in. The Puritans, who had been scattered in Charles’s time, were again making noise, with the theater being one of their favorite targets. 1698, the year of Farquhar’s arrival in London and of his first playwriting success, Love and a Bottle, is also the year of Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, the pamphlet that, despite all the indignant ripostes and onstage jokes it triggered, would eventually lead to the reforms that crippled English comedy with a century-long case of sentimentality, until Shaw and Wilde came down from Dublin to rescue it—as Congreve and Farquhar had done before them—from the twin evils of plodding lewdness on the one hand and grim-chinned priggishness on the other.
Farquhar never plods, and though his moral outlook is a considerable cut above his Caroline predecessors in decency, no one could possibly call him a prig. His infectious high spirits find a perfect expression in the extravagant diction of The Constant Couple‘s hero, Sir Harry Wildair, performed by Bradford Cover with brash, bold cheeriness, who serves as fulcrum to the play’s seesawing twin plots. Like his double-dealing friend Vizard (David L. Townsend) and Vizard’s naively trusting pal, Colonel Standard (John Pasha), Sir Harry is fixated on the enticing but endlessly manipulative Lady Lurewell (Rachel Botchan), who, seduced and abandoned when a virginal country girl, has come to London to use her inherited wealth and newly ripened charms solely for revenge on men. Simultaneously, both Sir Harry and Vizard have designs on the latter’s innocent cousin Angelica (Jolly Abraham), daughter of an impoverished gentlewoman (Joanne Camp). The catch is that Vizard, shunned by honest Angelica, has tricked Sir Harry into thinking that she’s an expensive whore and her mother’s lodgings a bordello.
While Vizard and Lady Lurewell look like colorful preliminary sketches for Sheridan’s Joseph Surface and Lady Sneerwell, the wrong-house prank suggests a bawdier first draft of such late 18th-century frolics as Goldoni’s Venetian Twins and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Meantime, the emotional convolutions between Lady Lurewell and Colonel Standard, like those that spring from the misunderstanding between Sir Harry and Angelica, prefigure the deeper psychological torments Sheridan depicted in The Rivals‘ Falkland and Julia. Farquhar’s good-humored, unserious way of resolving these relationships, though, implies a wholly different view of comedy—puff pastry to Sheridan’s bittersweet chocolate. More like the Restoration style and its Jacobean forebears are the two rowdy low-comic subplots: One involves Vizard’s uncle (Dominic Cuskern), a Puritanical alderman who is also greedy, lecherous, and a tax dodger; the second centers on his apprentice (Eduardo Placer), who has inherited wealth and turned fop, to the dismay of his country-bumpkin brother (Sean McNall). Pursued by both fop and hypocrite, Lurewell gives both their deserved comeuppance.
Randich’s staging, largely straightforward, lets Stephen Petrilli’s astute, economical lighting evoke the play’s many locales. She has one good idea—using contemporary props like wheeled shoes and bicycle helmets to hook the events gently to our own time—and one bad one: turning the text’s rhymed scene endings into musical numbers that stall the action and make hash of the verbal sense. Farquhar’s own music should have been enough for her. But she gets by easily, thanks to generally competent acting overall, seven better- quality performances (Botchan, Camp, Cuskern, McNall, Pasha, Placer, and Robin Leslie Brown as Lurewell’s French maid), and, most of all, to Cover, whose acting has unstiffened over the years without losing its vocal resourcefulness, so that he can catch Sir Harry all the way up and down the scale, from the good-hearted roaring boy always ready for a lewd joke to the poetry-spouting gent perfect in his courtesy toward genteel ladies. He could charm you into believing that the Restoration’s sexual mores had some validity after all.
His charm would probably cut no ice, however, with the German director Michael Thalheimer, whose production of Wedekind’s Lulu, from the Thalia Theater, Hamburg, was briefly seen at BAM last week. Thalheimer is one of the more intelligent of the anti-artists who currently ruin great plays for the joy of artsy pedants and the misery of German audiences, long inured to obedient suffering. Posing his actors starkly on a bare stage against a brightly lit backdrop, Thalheimer turned Wedekind’s astonishing tragicomic fable about the vagaries of sexual desire in a repressive society into a monochrome, minimalist sermon telling us—big news—that all men, when they see a beautiful woman, have only one thing on their minds. He thus missed, in true German fashion, Wedekind’s central joke, which is that all men see the one thing on their minds differently. Wedekind shows us each of Lulu’s lovers imagining her as a different person, and all getting bollixed up when they fail to accept her as herself; Thalheimer turned this into a tiresome parade of one guy after another with his pants down around his ankles, reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Seven Deadly Sins, which replaced the original scenario’s heptalogue with the single, endlessly repeated sin of male oppressor against female victim. (A colleague quipped that he was bored by six of the sins but admired “Pina’s ‘Envy’.”) Thalheimer’s capable actors kept giving off hints that he and they clearly knew better, but his conceptual rigidity kept stifling the richness that you could hear, when they spoke understandably, in Wedekind’s wondrous text.