It could be said that the fine art of comedy (especially morality plays and farce) took centuries to evolve into the madcap mayhem of say, Ferenc Molnér’s The President or Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday. But with comedic masterpieces from Shakespeare all the way back to Aristophanes’ Wasps already “in the books,” the necessity of time to assure the development of any theatrical genre doesn’t wash. Since Eve first tickled Adam’s, er, funny bone, humankind can nearly always tell when its legs are being pulled.
In the specific case of Sir John Vanbrugh, perhaps his longer hours in the service of architecture and devotedly mingling with the gentrified members of the Kit-Kat club, denied him the requisite number of days to more fully hone his craft and exploit his considerable talent.
The weaknesses in The Relapse or Virtue in Danger (cf, “Endangered” in Derek Campbell’s 1960s-set production) stem from a surfeit of scenes whose collective bulk leaves very little of their narrative threads satisfactorily resolved. Perhaps the fact that this work is a sequel to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift or The Fool in Fashion could be partly responsible for the speedy playwright’s meanderings (i.e., this play was dashed off in just six weeks).
Fortunately, many of the cast were in excellent form, responding with enthusiasm and skill to the text and Campbell’s valiant attempt to make the play seem better than it is.
At the top of the hit parade is Vincent O’Neill’s dandy performance as Lord Foppington (the former Sir Novelty Fashion who—as the action begins—has just purchased a pretentious peerage in order to become an even better draw to the ladies, whether in town or the countryside). Adam Rath works hilariously in tandem with his master, gamely setting up their banter and gaily working his booty at his Lordships’ every command. Unfortunately, Vanbrugh sends this character too soon to the sidelines, just as his lead meets, greets, fiddles and drops women. Still, with a name like La Verole (syphilis) perhaps there’s a subtle metaphor at work.
Convincingly playing Sir Turnbelly Clumsey, the delightfully named country squire and lecherous father of match-made Miss Hoyden (Mary Beth Lacki) is Robert Rutland. He’s got the bluster of wealth and devotion to drink down to a T (leaving the stage has seldom been such fun). For her part, Lacki does fairly well as the bride of two warring brothers, but might consider a bit more variety in her delivery to help the dilemma of polygamy gain weight. Nurse (Beth Donohue) glides through her chores with the greatest of ease. A real chance at extra-dark yuks was missed when Clumsey’s servants hoist their weapons to mete out justice on their master’s various intruders. Their outfits and implements begged for some threatening looks and demented hillbilly tone even as their initial defence of the estate only needed a banjo and guitar in the offing to connect the dots to Deliverance.
The possibility for this cue back to 1972 was due in large measure to the decision to set the seventeenth century tale in the psychedelic 1960s. From retro furniture (marvellously moved about from scene to scene by the energetic troupe as they danced couches, flowers and tables in and out of view: best of show was Daniel Siejak’s sudden morph from frenzied twister to watering can toting servant), to carefully chosen songs of the day (notably “A Well Respected Man and “Devil in Her Heart”) through to Lord Foppington’s garish outfits and wig (Mike Myers would be proud) and the see-all-the-way-to-breakfast mini dresses (yet not a bellbottom to be found), the era was always in the eye and ear. Still, the talcum powder and “sugar candy” (snort, snort, nudge, nudge) lines that were inserted failed to hit their marks. Perhaps contemporizing has its limits.
A tip of the hat to Aaron Pitre, playing the delightful role of Worthy. His best moments came from movement, magically oily as he seduced the hapless Amanda (Diane Curley) and an explosion of unbridled energy as the accomplished dancer flew about his colleagues in the extended dance sequence. At that moment, everyone had enough business and direction to lift the crowd to the rafters. If bottled, and saved for the next power outage, no one would be left in the dark. It’s the sort of non-stop mayhem that proved to be so effective in Bartholomew Fair (cross-reference below). More, please.
Here’s where the remainder of the cast might go to school for future productions. Too often the lines were generally well given but lacked a physical characterization to bring them home. Gary Darling’s bum-grabbing Coupler was ideally seedy in his queer lust after Young Fashion (Chris Corporandy), but nearly two hours later his encore appearance seemed as if he’d suddenly gone straight.
No worries, those concerns aside, there’s much to admire in the time-warp show, if only Vanbrugh had spent less of his days living the life of his characters and more on creating them, this play, “stap my vitals,” could be a howler from stem to sternum. JWR