You may know about Restoration comedy from Congreve’s masterpiece, The Way of the World or Wycherley’s The Country Wife, both of which are revived from time to time. You may even know about Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress but do you know the man Marvell called “the best English satirist [and] the most learned among Restoration wits”? Three hundred years later Ezra Pound proclaimed poet/satirist John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, no less than equal to Alexander Pope!
You won’t see a more sumptuous production (with just eight moveable screens for a set!) about the scandalous man of 17th century letters than Bridge Rep’s THE LIBERTINE (in association with Playhouse Creatures Theatre) at the BCA through September 22nd. If the title seems familiar, Stephen Jeffreys’ play was made into a film in 2004, starring Johnny Depp as Wilmot, the libertine, and John Malkovich as King Charles II, often the subject of Wilmot’s ridicule. (I haven’t seen the movie but the play has inspired me to ferret it out.)
THE LIBERTINE offers a hearty portion of the Earl’s adventures, played to hilarious and bawdy perfection by an exemplary cast, led by the charismatic Joseph W. Rodriguez as Wilmot. He’s a rake, a philanderer, a heart breaker and a dissolute charmer. As William Hazlitt famously said, “His contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity.”
The Earl’s “Merry Gang” of satirists included writers Wycherley, George Etherege and Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset. Jeffreys puts Etherege and Sackville into his play as willing sidekicks to the mercurial Earl, whose rapier wit and witty epigrams often came back to bite him. (He was jailed a number of times and convicted of treason when the King overheard a most unflattering diatribe.)
Not content merely to comment on what Grayling calls “the age of riotous immorality,” the Earl lived life to the hilt, even catching the eye of Samuel Pepys. His famous diary recounts the Earl’s unconventional courtship of his wife-to-be: He kidnapped her to illustrate his devotion! Jeffreys works in the historical material with flair, capturing the licentious spirit of the times in his delightfully naughty dialogue but he isn’t long on plot, leaving me wanting something more to unite the highly entertaining scenes. (Aphra Behn’s OR, in a crackerjack production at the Lyric a few seasons ago, deals much more successfully with the same subject matter.)
That said, it’s a high energy, highly entertaining production, thanks to director Eric Tucker’s ingenious staging (especially the comical “commenting” scene from behind the skewed screens) and a cast to cherish: Brooks Reeves first as the playwright Etherege, a reluctant reveler in the Earl’s destructive exploits/then as a humorless portrait painter; Eric Doss as the Earl’s game manservant/then a constable; Daniel Duque-Estrada as the foppish Sackville/then a self-aggrandizing actor; and Troy Barboza as the Earl’s inexperienced, ill-fated, new found conspirator, all performed with panache.
Also well drawn: D’Arcy Dersham as the no nonsense stage manager, Richard Wayne as the overindulgent King Charles, Sarah Koestner as the Earl’s longsuffering wife, Megan O’Leary as the Earl’s favorite prostitute, Olivia D’Ambrosio as the actress beloved of the Earl and the ensemble players, who deliver the cheeky “Signor Dildo” ditty (to new music by Michael Wartofsky).