Ian Kelly in a publicity shot  for Beau Brummell
(Photo © Toby Merritt)
Ian Kelly in a publicity shot
for Beau Brummell
(Photo © Toby Merritt)
In Moonlight and Magnolias, his play about the making of Gone With the Wind, Ron Hutchinson showed his penchant for making up conversations between real-life figures. Now, he's back in the same territory with Beau Brummell, part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.

This time, however, Hutchinson has added a couple of twists. The legendary, half-mad dandy Brummell (Ian Kelly) talks for 90 minutes to Austin (Ryan Early), his valet -- not a real-life character -- with whom he's ensconced in a small room in a French house for the insane. (The set is simply yet effectively designed by Tom Rand.) Brummell also has imaginary conversations with a variety of English noblemen who were his friends and admirers before he brought about his own downfall by calling the Prince Regent, later King George IV, "fat" to his face. During these conversations, Austin often voices the other men.

The play is set towards the end of Brummell's life, as he spends his last unhappy days in Calais, France. We are greeted by Brummell, lounging in a bathtub and threatening to kill himself with a razor. But since Hutchinson is interested in some degree of historical accuracy, we know that the suicide attempt will come to naught; and since he is focusing on the life of the world's best-dressed man, we're certain that Brummel will be fully clothed in whatever finery he has left before the play is over. (We also know that he'll emerge from the tub au naturel, thanks to a "warning" of brief nudity posted at the theater's entrance.)

Hutchinson also takes something of a predictable tack by emphasizing Brummell's role as the Paris Hilton of his day, someone who was famous simply for being famous. It's true that the man's only real talent was his supreme sense of style -- knowing just how long a cuff, how short a sleeve, or how a tight a cravat should be -- yet it catapulted him into the highest ranks of society and had a lasting effect on men's fashion. But immortality is a hard thing to predict. Two decades after leaving England in disgrace, having gambled away his considerable fortune, Brummell still believes he might be welcomed back to England with open arms by King George, who is visting Calais.

That expectation appears to be shared by Austin, who detests the British monarchy but also can't wait to get back to England, where fortune may await. One can't blame him; he has served Brummell for a year without pay. During the course of the play, Austin's moods swing almost as violently as his master's, from good humor to contempt and even possibly to a bit of homosexual lust. Perhaps the valet has been driven slightly mad by the pair's forced closeness, or perhaps these changes in temperment are the only way he can get through the days; the reasons for his behavior remain unclear in the writing and in Early's entertaining if somewhat superficial performance under the otherwise smooth direction of Simon Green.

Conversely, Kelly -- who has written his own just-published biography, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style -- not only shows off a lot of skin but also gets way below the skin of this fascinating man, capturing the hauteur and self-confidence that remain despite his descent into madness. Though Kelly doesn't offer the audience anything to eat, as he does in his other show in the festival, Cooking for Kings, he provides considerable food for thought about the fleeting nature of celebrity in his sharp characterization. If Paris Hilton is smarter than she seems, she'll come to see this show -- and then take up a useful trade pronto!