Dominic Cuskern and Rachel Botchan
in The Constant Couple
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Dominic Cuskern and Rachel Botchan
in The Constant Couple
(© Gregory Costanzo)
If Ben Jonson had set out to create the female equivalent of the scheming, avaricious and lecherous Volpone, he might have come up with something similar to Lady Lurewell, the protagonist of George Farquhar's 1699 play The Constant Couple. This little-known work is being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company in a production that gracefully emphasizes the play's many assets, but one that does little to mitigate some of its weaknesses.

Lady Lurewell (played with an unconvincing mix of girlishness and cattiness by Rachel Botchan) is a late twentysomething who was "dishonored" and jilted at 15. She has now made it her business to torment any man who shows a passing interest in her. As the play opens, she has not one, but five men who are actively pursuing her, and she makes it her business to set them against one another even as they quarrel, duel, and hatch their own plots to foil the others' amorous aspirations.

Lurewell treats two of these men with a modicum of decency: the upstanding and somewhat hot-tempered Colonel Standard (John Pasha, in an assured performance) and the dashing and perpetually imperturbable Baronet, Sir Harry Wildair (the effervescent and charismatic Bradford Cover). With them, she acts the part of the coquette, stringing them along and toying with their heightened self-images.

Conversely, Lurewell has nothing but disdain for two suitors: Vizard (made a villain to relish by David L. Townsend) and Alderman Smuggler (imbued with comic gravity by Dominic Cuskern), both of whom are seemingly pious, but intrinsically corrupt. For these two -- who happen to be nephew and uncle -- Lurewell reserves some of her choicest plots, which involve cross-dressing and late night trysts. Clincher Sr. (a pricelessly fey Eduardo Place), a preening fop and Lurewell's fifth suitor, gets perhaps some of the most humbling treatment in the play, thanks in part to Clincher Jr. (played charmingly and with terrific modulation by Sean McNall), who attempts to wrestle his father's estate from his older sibling.

The series of events that Lurewell sets in motion might be enough for one play alone, but Farquhar does not rest with the merriment created by her deceits. Perhaps most satisfying are the moments that stem from a bit of misinformation floated by Vizard, who leads Wildair to believe that the righteous Lady Darling (played with genteel severity by Joanne Camp) and her equally moral daughter, Angelica (a performance of nuance and restraint from Jolly Abraham) are "working women." Concurrently, Vizard leads the two women to think that Wildair has come to propose.

While director Jean Randich ensures that the play's intricate plot remains beautifully clear (and often hilarious) throughout, she stumbles with the play's musical sequences. The songs in the piece comment on the action almost in a Brechtian fashion, and she and lighting designer Stephen Petrilli go to jarring extremes to set the songs apart from the main action. The same is true for two assignations in Lurewell's home where stage lights descend from the flies and are held by performers at the sides of the stage.

Equally curious in this otherwise period production (made almost eye-popping by Liz Covey's sumptuous designs) is Randich's decision to have a porter (a comical Orville Mendoza) who carries messages between the lovers, wear a crash helmet and heelies. Presumably, such techniques are meant to distance us from the action so that we can draw parallels between Farquhar's world and our own; but in truth, they only make certain sections of the piece -- long commentary on the late 17th-century world and philosophical rhapsodies about the nature of men and women and romance -- seem over-extended.

Thankfully, these moments are generally eclipsed by the brightness of what precedes and follows, when the roller coaster of Farquhar's play begins once again to barrel along on its rollicking ride through the world of little-known late Restoration comedy.