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Theater Review

'Libertine' Wears Its Wit Into the Ground

July 27, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

You can't say you weren't warned. John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, a notorious Restoration rake, begins Stephen Jeffreys' "The Libertine" by telling us we won't like him, and furthermore he doesn't want us to like him. But he does hope we'll keep his image in mind the next time we "shag."

The play then takes three hours to outline the sordid details of Rochester's life. By the end, his prediction comes true. Glum and spiteful and slowly killing himself with drink, he's not exactly in the same likability league as that other shagging expert, Austin Powers.

With a pedigree that includes the Royal Court and Steppenwolf theaters, "The Libertine" sounds promising, but Gillian Bagwell's staging for the Pasadena Shakespeare Company is a long sit.

In the title role, Kevin Kindlin appears to be imitating a young Peter O'Toole. As the play slowly winds its way through its final chapters, he projects a truly dissipated presence--until he whisks off his long, stringy wig, and suddenly he looks boyish and fresh, certainly not the intended effect.

Cristina Anselmo plays the actress for whom he develops a passion with dignity but without the requisite magnetism. Leda Whyte's long-suffering wife needs to display little except dignity and generally succeeds.

Rochester and his fellow wits hardly pause in their rowdy pursuits, even when rehearsing a prurient play in front of the king. But all this roistering is never as funny or as titillating as it's supposed to be, so the consequent disillusionment feels less than profound. The set looks cheap and unimaginative.

* "The Libertine," Plaza Pasadena Mall, Suite 296, 300 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. $18. (626) 564-8564. Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes.

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