As labor and management wrangle uptown about the future of Broadway, downtown's Pearl Theatre Company is offering an early Christmas present of the past. It's from 1699, George Farquhar's rollicking — and rarely seen — Restoration romp The Constant Couple. This is a surprise package well worth opening, thanks to its freshness, its accessibility, and the straightforward speediness of Jean Randich's stylish production. There's also the bonus of witnessing several leading players sail through Restoration English with alacrity and grace.
Farquhar's life was brief and bumpy; he was dead before his 30th birthday. Today he is best remembered for The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem, but The Constant Couple was his first success. While his plays may lack the sparkling repartee and artifice of his Restoration predecessors, they are much more grounded in geniality and recognizable humanity. At the center of Couple's labyrinthine plotting is a trio of suitors vying for the hand of Lady Lurewell (Rachel Botchan): Colonel Standard (John Pasha), Sir Harry Wildair (Bradford Cover), and the devious Vizard (David L. Townsend). But Sir Harry falls for Angelica (Jolly Abraham) after Vizard tells him she's a prostitute. (She's not, of course.) And that's just for starters. Additional swirling plot strands include the exploits of Alderman Smuggler (Dominic Cuskern) and his apprentice Clincher (Eduardo Placer). The play's themes of female revenge for past wrongs and the male reluctance to commit seem almost contemporary.
One of the advantages of this production is its clarity, as we can actually follow all these entwined intrigues. Director Randich maintains the fun at a hectic pace, allowing a couple of anachronistic touches to add to the breezy theatricality of it all. The Pearl's speech coach, Robert Neff Williams, seems to have done his job, for here is a large cast that is consistently well-spoken, with hardly a jarring note to be heard. The casting of the lead players is also a blessing. As Sir Harry, Cover expertly catches the blithe tenor of Farquhar's intentions; Botchan's Lady Lurewell is attractively sympathetic, even in revenge; and Pasha's bluff Colonel Standard is ardently convincing. There's also a strong supporting cast, with Cuskern's Smuggler a standout, especially when he's wearing a dress.
This Christmas gift of a play very much falls into the "naughty but nice" category, and it's awash in Farquhar's wonderful words. Such original phrases as "pious ejaculations" are waiting here to be savored.
Presented by and at the Pearl Theatre Company,
80 St. Marks Place, NYC.
Nov. 26-Dec. 23. Tue., 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m.
(212) 598-9802 or www.pearltheatre.org.
Casting by Craig Evans.