Seeing “The Libertine” is like visiting a decadent secret society that the titular Earl of Rochester might have enjoyed. And not just because of the big musical number devoted to a common sexual aid.
Audiences are sent down a side corridor to the stage of the Wimberly Theatre and seated in the wings. The curtain stands closed and the stage is mostly bare, making the space a de facto black box. There are only 60 seats, and on Thursday they were barely half full.
The initial feeling — black box, sparse crowd, stormy night, long play — was a definite uh-oh. That quickly changed. Given the terrific acting, the performance quickly came to feel exclusive, the empty seats a minor tragedy. The production, opening the first full season of Boston’s new Bridge Repertory Theater in partnership with New York’s Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, runs only through Sept. 22. You should hurry to join this club.
The play by Stephen Jeffreys tells the story of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, a complex and charismatic Restoration figure, a rebel, atheist, writer, and cynical wit who drowned his existential doubts in drink and whoring. Unfortunately he also seems to have drowned his chances at true happiness.
Wilmot is played here by Playhouse Creatures artistic director Joseph W. Rodriguez, who also played the part in New York in 2010, both times under the direction of Eric Tucker. He gives us Wilmot’s brilliance and often hilarious cynicism. (Speaking directly to the audience, he says: “You will not like me.”) But also, right from the start, we can see his underlying despair. Wilmot can rouse himself to lampoon and defy his friend King Charles II, on principle or just for fun, even if it lands him in the Tower. But between his moments of courage, he debauches compulsively, bringing himself lower and lower.
Married, but unhappily, he sees salvation in love with the actress Elizabeth Barry, played by Bridge Rep producing artistic director Olivia D’Ambrosio. At first, he alone sees the courage of her performances and helps her become a star, but his doubts and addictions will get in the way of their bond.
D’Ambrosio’s grounded and sympathetic performance makes her a good contrast/sparring partner for Rodriguez, as is Sarah Koestner as Wilmot’s oft-neglected, comparatively uptight wife, Lady Malet. The period setting offers a turnabout in which the men wear ghastly makeup, wigs, and ornate clothing, while the women are plain-faced and relatively plain-dressed, as well as plain-spoken.
Preeminent among the male dandies is Richard Wayne, channeling Vincent Price circa “Laura” as the silkily malevolent Charles II, his outsize presence magnified by heels and hats and brocades worthy of Elton John. (Angela Huff’s witty costumes offer a lavish contrast to the bare-bones setting.) Troy Barboza has one terrific second-act monologue as Wilmot’s young drinking buddy, Billy Downs. Brooks Reeves and Daniel Duque-Estrada play Wilmot’s more effete pals, George and Charles, and Eric Doss scores as Wilmot’s snarky manservant, Alcock.
The production is ingenious, loosely inspired by New York’s but too different to be called a re-mount. It features a few sticks of furniture and other props, along with a platoon of door-size panels moved about by the cast. And finally, toward the end, the curtain goes up and backstage truly becomes backstage.
There are a few minor issues. The flowery 17th-century speech comes out of the cast so rapidly that its more ornate turns can be difficult to hear properly or decipher. And if this were headed for Broadway, the movements of cast and panels would need more precision.
On the whole, though, this was a ravishing “Libertine” indeed.