Brilliant Cast Carries ‘The Libertine’ – 4.5 stars

“The Libertine” Written by Stephen Jeffreys; Directed by Eric Tucker; Music composed by Michael Wartofsky; Costume Design by Angela Huff. Presented by Bridge Rep of Boston and the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Co. of New York City through September 22nd at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) in the Wimberly Theatre, 527 Tremont St., Boston.

One of the problems with having contempt for the entirety of the human race is that it is most often a reflection of how those who do so feel towards themselves. But it certainly does have its advantages, if only for the short term, because people love to hear witty observations dripping with truth right up until the time when such observations are directed at them. Unfortunately, the downside of standing outside of the circle and throwing darts at the unfortunates is that it can leave you very alone when you most want not to be. John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, and a highly regarded playwright, poet and “debaucher” was one such example, and the last few years of his life are chronicled in the beautifully staged adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys “The Libertine”, presented jointly by Bridge Rep of Boston and the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Co. of New York City.

The play opens with a prologue by Wilmot that begins with, “You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on.” Which may or may not be true. Set during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), the first scene opens with Wilmot and his “Merry Gang”(George Etheredge, Charles Sackville and 16 year old Billy Downs) – a collection of fellow playwrights and wits whose secondary avocations seem to be drinking and cavorting with prostitutes – preparing a parody of one of their contemporary playwright pals (John Dryden) latest works. They first find some awful writing for fodder but are stopped dead in their tracks by a well-written and rather profound passage which causes them to lose interest in their project – it’s much harder to satirize good work – and pursue their real interests, namely drinking and hookers.

These activities dominate the play, along with biting repartee among the wits – much of it very funny and cutting. The next day, Wilmot and his friends attend a play where the lead actress Elizabeth Barry (played by the marvelous Olivia D’Ambrosio) is brutalized by the rowdy crowds at the theater. Wilmot is totally taken by the courage of the woman to take risks with her performance despite the contempt shown by the crowd and he takes her under his wing, but with a number of ulterior motives in hand, including the obvious amorous one.

King Charles, meanwhile has asked Wilmot to write a “brilliant” play to reflect well on him and turn political sentiment to his side in return for cash, and this is where Wilmot’s years of self-destructive behavior begin affect his ability to deliver on his massive potential. His drinking worsens, his disrespect of his patient wife grows worse, his acting out becomes more bizarre, and most damaging is that his talent is eroding. And this is also where Joseph W. Rodriguez (as Wilmot) really begins to show his prodigious chops. As terrific as he is as the cocky degenerate rogue, Rodriguez brilliantly portrays his character’s descent into a pathetic creature. At one point, he drunkenly sums up his persistent arrogance despite his obvious decline with the biting line, “I could have written a great play – if it weren’t so beneath me.”

And he is well supported by the rest of the outstanding cast. Richard Wayne’s King Charles is commanding as the English ruler who manages to remain somewhat dignified while engaging in the same behaviors as the Merry Gang, and his exchanges with allegedly intellectually superior Wilmot are riveting. The aforementioned D’Ambrosio does a great job in her role as the ambitious Elizabeth Barry, and Brooks Reeves is both funny and vulnerable in his role as Etheredge. There are a multitude of solid performances by the entire 13-person cast, and not a weak link in the lot.

The sets are spare but effective, and it appears the budget went into the elaborate and detailed costuming – which is outstanding. There is even a clever little musical production number that extensively features a popular sexual device to open the second act, and the ensemble performs admirably.

This show is not for everyone – at least not for those who blush easily. Because of its sexual themes, it’s not family friendly, but it’s pretty PG for most folks. Also, if you don’t have the ear for 17th century dialogue (as some people lack with Shakespeare), you may miss some of the wit and humor that runs through the show. That being said, this is one of the best acted and staged productions I have seen this year, and well worth seeing.

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