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Measure for Pleasure

David Grimm's newly minted "Restoration romp" often forgoes good taste, but it has moments of wit and comic brilliance.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Emily Swallow in Measure for Pleasure
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
If you're not offended enough to leave by the end of the first act, you'll probably have a good time at Measure for Pleasure. David Grimm's newly minted "Restoration romp" often forgoes good taste; it's a raunchy comedy filled with plenty of sexual innuendo and crude language. The play and the production have moments of wit and comic brilliance, but both suffer from uneven execution.

Set in 1751, Measure for Pleasure concerns the love and lust amongst a group of nobles and servants. Sir Peter Lustforth (Wayne Knight) is tired of his wife, Lady Vanity (Suzanne Bertish); he has set his sights on the young virgin Hermione Goode (Emily Swallow), who is being protected by her puritanical guardian, Dame Stickle (Susan Blommaert). Hermione is also being pursued by Captain Dick Dashwood (Saxon Palmer), a young rake who has faked his own death in order to prove to her that he can turn over a new leaf. But before he sets out to woo Hermione in his new guise as Don Fidelio, Dashwood's eyes and other bodily parts stray towards the Lustforths' new maid, Molly Tawdry (Euan Morton); he is unaware that she's a transgendered prostitute recently taken off the streets by Sir Peter's valet, Will Blunt (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is in love with her. In typical Restoration comedy fashion, the play is filled with disguises, mistaken identities, secrets, and outrageous plot twists. Duels are fought, hidden heritages are revealed, and love ultimately triumphs.

Grimm delights in wordplay, and his verse passages are often cleverly rhymed. He makes campy allusions to such literary works as Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (Obviously, the title of Grimm's play is a takeoff on that of the Bard's Measure for Measure, although the plots of the two works have nothing whatsoever in common.) Unfortunately, several of the author's sex jokes are so heavy-handed that they cease to be funny, giving the impression that he is more crass than clever.

While there are several romantic liaisons within the play, its focal point is the relationship between Will and Molly. This gay love story is a welcome change from the heterosexual unions that are by far the norm in comedies of this nature. It helps considerably that Morton and Stuhlbarg are both excellent, endowing their roles with humor and charm.

On the other hand, Knight -- best known as Newman on Seinfeld -- is woefully miscast. The opening scene, in which Sir Peter rails against his wife, drags on and starts the play off on a sour note. Knight seems ill at ease in speaking Grimm's verse, and he indicates his character's intentions in far too broad a manner. Palmer has a similar problem for much of the production, but a heartfelt monologue late in the play in which Dashwood confesses his faults is surprisingly moving. Swallow is fetching as the young ingénue, while Blommaert is amusing as the dour Dame Stickle. Bertish is a riot; her large eyes, accented by heavy make-up, speak volumes, and her keen sense of timing results in some of the production's funnier moments, yet she paints an eloquent portrait of a lonely woman who aches for some sign of affection from her husband.

Anita Yavich's sumptuous period costumes are wonderful; I especially loved the brown leather ensemble worn by Dick Dashwood, Stuhlbarg's pink puffy concoction for his character's disguise as Horatio Pillowsoft, and the canary yellow dress that adorns Hermione Goode. Alexander Dodge's scenic design is both versatile and inventive; his rendition of the cave where all of the characters end up is appropriately tacky, provoking both groans and laughter from the audience as the sexual nature of its design is revealed.

Director Peter DuBois has not found a perfect balance between the play's outrageousness and its romanticism. Several moments are awkward, such as when Knight's Lustforth and Palmer's Dashwood give each other a secret society greeting that involves pelvic thrusts and other potentially obscene gestures. Still, the production is paced briskly and flies by quicker than its two-and-a-half hour length might indicate. Despite its imperfections, Measure for Pleasure is a worthwhile endeavor that displays keen intelligence and a willingness to push boundaries.

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