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Of libido and laughter

'Restoration Comedy' at the Old Globe is delightful despite flaws and a steamrolling plot.

March 13, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The opposite of desire, Blanche DuBois declares, is death. But why accept her fluttery Southern belle view? According to the legion of randy characters from Restoration comedy, the true opposite of desire is marriage. And their authors spend a good deal of imaginative energy cooking up schemes that will allow them to circumvent those pillars of marital melancholy -- virginity (you have to sign on the dotted line if you want to play) and monogamy (you're basically trapped once you do).

In "Restoration Comedy," now at San Diego's Old Globe, playwright Amy Freed spins an updated version of those bawdy farces that irreverently pranced across the English stage for four decades after the Puritan ban on public theaters was lifted in 1660. With a free hand, she combines two plays from the era -- Colley Cibber's "Love's Last Shift" and John Vanbrugh's less sentimental sequel to it, "The Relapse" -- to a mostly delightful effect. Her rollicking collage extracts maximum zaniness as it provocatively pokes into matters no one is supposed to discuss aloud, and stumbles only on the unwieldy logistics of her triple-barreled plot.

Best known for "The Beard of Avon," a faux-Elizabethan comedy grappling with the question of who wrote Shakespeare's plays, Freed clearly enjoys transporting herself to legendary theatrical milieus. And "Restoration Comedy," bouncily directed by John Rando and lavishly costumed by Robert Blackman, pays homage to the period by keeping the high jinks aloft for nearly the entire hyper-libidinous stretch. It's not perfect (there are serious lulls in the second act), but you leave the theater not only entertained but also with that special feeling of enlightenment that comes after a long and intensely giggly conversation with one of your more forthcoming friends.

The games begin with a charming assault on the fourth wall. The actor who plays Loveless, Marco Barricelli, steps before the audience and gleefully announces the real reason the actors have agreed to perform the play: "So we could get to wear the clothes!"

His character, however, much prefers taking them off. The dissolute husband of the young and wealthy Amanda (the appealing Caralyn Kozlowski), who apparently hasn't provided enough uninhibited amusement to keep him from straying (who could?), he was reported to have died outside of England. But it turns out he's still carousing at full tilt and has only resurfaced in London after hearing that his wife has fatally succumbed to heartbreak. Mistakenly, he thinks the coast is clear for his debauched homecoming.

Worthy (Peter Frechette) discovers Loveless in a drunken heap and, secretly in love with Amanda, confirms the rumor that she has died. He wants to protect her from Loveless' profligate ways, but devoted to her as he is, he informs her of Loveless' return and devises a plan that will help her transform him into a one-woman man.

As a general rule in Restoration comedy, the shortest distance between two points is a squiggly circle. Worthy's machinations require Amanda to disguise herself as a lady of pleasure who will admit Loveless into her boudoir and prove to him that she can entrance him just as completely as any of those other hussies he has been tirelessly chasing.

The scheme for rehabilitating Loveless' compulsive philandering works so well (picture fireworks setting the sky ablaze) that Worthy must search for a way to undo the miraculous conversion. He hasn't given up hope that Amanda might still be his mistress. And so he finds himself in league with Amanda's less demure cousin Berinthia (Christa Scott-Reed), who has unexpectedly arrived and reawakened Loveless' extramarital lust.

At least that seems to be what happens. It all gets a bit blurry after the intermission when a few of the supporting actors start playing new characters, and the would-be adulterous shenanigans between Amanda and Worthy and Loveless and Berinthia must make room for the escapades of Lord Foppington (Danny Sheie, affecting a nasal twang of flat vowels), who deprives his brother, Young Fashion (Michael Izquierdo), of a decent lifestyle while he siphons the family fortune to pay for ensembles that would have made Liberace blanch. (Never fear: A complicated comeuppance is in the works.)

Freed could have sorted out this dramatic skein more carefully. Part of the problem is the setup of Worthy's character. A reformed rake, he's meant to be sensitive, yet he does an awful lot of insensitive things, including romancing and then dumping Narcissa (Amelia McClain), a flighty young heiress who provides an early excuse for Worthy to hang around Amanda. The confusion isn't that he's occasionally villainous but that he's vague -- his personality more or less a convenience for a steamrolling plot.

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