When Restoration meets retro - The world première at the Rep is (mostly) a winner

Naughtiness runs amuck in "Restoration Comedy," a retro romp of fashion, opulence and sexual cavorting. Think "Sex and the City" circa 1660 England.

 Former Artistic Director Sharon Ott returns to Seattle Repertory Theatre to steer the world première of Amy Freed's frothy and often lewd concoction of decadence, disguise and deception. The costumes are gorgeous, the sets imaginative and the actors superb.

Ott adds so much frivolity to this production, you don't much care that "Restoration Comedy" has little plot. Its theme might be "Virtue is a bore, so let's have sex galore." Or perhaps, "The road to repentance seems lined with temptation. So why travel when you can give in?"

Playwright Freed takes inspiration from two 1690s comedies, Colley Cibber's "Love's Last Shift" and John Vanbrugh's "The Relapse." Set in London and the nearby countryside, Freed's pseudo-satire sweeps us back into the late 17th century. With puritanical Oliver Cromwell dead, Charles II had returned to the English throne. And since he was a notorious libertine, it was open season on sin. Providing you observed proper British etiquette.

Freed's play overflows with stock character types. Meet the Rake, the Virtuous Wife, the Empty-headed Heiress, the Country Bumpkin, the Reformed Roué, the Sexy Temptress, the Best Friend, the Fop, his Reckless Younger Brother and so on. As this wicked and wily crew interferes with one another's loves, lives and livelihoods, they inevitably rely on their worst behavior.

Virtuous and beautiful Amanda (Caralyn Kozlowski) saves face, while her bounder of a husband Mr. Loveless (Stephen Caffrey) swives his way through every wench in Europe. He thinks Amanda is dead; she pretends he is. Mr. Worthy (Neil Maffin), a reformed rake betrothed to vacuous Narcissa (Bhama Roget), really wants Amanda. Then, to her shock and surprise, Loveless returns to London. Now she wants him to want her. So Worthy suggests she seduce her own spouse, masquerading as a courtesan. A delighted Loveless throws himself into his reform, but when Amanda's sultry kissing-cousin Berinthia (Suzanne Bouchard) arrives, he wants her as well. But by now, Amanda wants Worthy. Oh, lud and la-de-dah. In other words, what a coil!

Meanwhile, Young Fashion (Matthew Schneck), a rakish wannabe without a shilling to his name, hits up his gasbag older brother Sir Novelty Fashion (Jonathan Freeman), the newly dubbed Lord Foppington, for a loan. Sorry, bro, nada a pence. So Young Fashion plots to steal his sibling's rustic-born fiancée and her plump dowry.

Kozlowski makes a graceful, intelligent and lovely Amanda, deliciously wicked when she transforms herself from virtuous wife into vixen vamp. Determined to keep her man titillated, Amanda creates outlandish fantasies to catch her philandering hubby off-guard. She's so convincing, he even tries to tumble a doddering old messenger, presuming it's his wife in disguise.

The talented Caffrey endows the debauched Loveless with a mix of caddish charm, drunken indifference and dissolute decorum. He's led by his organ, and we're not talking about his heart. As he quips in his witty intro, "That's me playing the part of the hunk. I'm going to exit now and come back drunk." As Worthy, the handsome Maffin comes off as dashing as Loveless is dissipated. The epitome of good taste and etiquette, Worthy turns a pretty leg and a prettier phrase, secretly languishing for the fair Amanda.

But it's the supporting characters that tickle your funnybone, frolicking through multiple roles with glee. The marvelous Laurence Ballard almost steals the show as he takes on four different characters. He's especially hilarious as Old Coupler Manlove, a ridiculous velvet-clad matchmaker wearing an even more ridiculous wig of bobbing ringlet-like curls. Manlove makes the deal, but there's an extra fee. As he minces about, he can't keep his hands off the young men's chests, la-la-la-la-ing his delight. Ballard also does a redneck turn as Sir Tunbelly Clumsey, a beer-bellied, Gabby Hayes clone of a country squire.

Roget shows off her comedic talents as silly, selfish Narcissa, a wealthy blond bimbo swathed in frivolous pink ruffles like a gift-wrapped bauble. In her portrayal of the dim-witted coquette, Roget preens and pouts in whiny confusion when she doesn't get her own way. Then Roget switches roles to become the rambunctious carrot-topped Hoyden, an oversexed, hyperactive hick who jumps up and down at the mention of men.

Broadway notable Freeman plays the aspiring dandy and flaming queen, Sir Novelty Fashion, a.k.a. Lord Foppington, as the perfect fool who fancies himself "the King of Fashion." But his makeover scene, a runway of hipster Restoration couture devised by his pandering tailor (Gabriel Baron), seems out of sync with the rest of this show, despite the outrageous designs of costumer Anna R. Oliver. She dresses the popinjay in tacky chic, including a lamé skirt, skin-tight animal prints with butt zippers and dangling white lace cuffs. But the pièce de résistance? Foppington's cascading, floor-length wig simulates enough fake poodle pelts to incite a PETA riot. 

No guesswork needed about Bouchard's role, the sensuous Berinthia, a personable but clever mistress of double-entendres. Bouchard's all done up in fashionable scarlet, a declaration of her character which she delivers with sophisticated élan. As the zaftig Hillaria, Laura Kenny embodies the worldly, wisecracking sidekick. She blatantly flirts with Sir Novelty, but he's far more interested in his appearance than tupping the lusty, silk-clad matron.

Word around town is that Oliver's sumptuous costume designs kept three theater shops working full time - and it shows. Every creation invites touch, including delicate see-through peignoirs, dazzling silk gowns, plush velvet waistcoats with matching feathered chapeaus, extravagant Frenchified wigs and assorted foppery frou-frous. And her collection for the country clan has hayseed written all over it.

Hugh Landwehr's set offers a triumphant combination of Restoration regency and mischievous abandon. A harpsichord sinks slowly into the floor as it's being played. A miniature cardboard carriage rolls across the stage. Another cardboard illustration, a cow that moos, stands guard just outside the window at Amanda's country estate, while a crowd of cardboard yokels wave clubs whenever Sir Tunbelly's temper erupts.

Truthfully, the R-rated script for "Restoration Comedy" needs revisions. Although Freed cleverly combines contemporary language with Restoration antics, her dialogue sometimes bogs down in an attempt to be funny. She could use a joke writer. The play's snappy beginning had us tingling in anticipation, but promises more mirth than it ulitmately delivers.

When it works, it's wonderful. When it doesn't, ho-hum.[[In-content Ad]]