Tuesday, November 17, 2009



By Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Wendy McClellan. Women's Project at the Julia Miles Theatre. (CLOSED)

Most critics are more or less seduced by Liz Duffy Adams' playful, sexy take on Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, with kudos for the attractive cast and Wendy McClellan's crisp, energetic direction. A number of admirers voice one quibble or another--Do the parallels between the 1660s and 1960s really hold up? Does Andy Paris' drag turn go a camp too far?--while a few count themselves frustrated by the piece's gossamer lightness and farcical focus.

New York Post A
(Frank Scheck) Rollicking, bodice-ripping farce...Echoing the door-slamming, bawdy style of Restoration comedies, the play scores its satirical points in highly entertaining fashion, aided by director Wendy McClellan's fast-paced staging. Siff's Behn is suitably smart and sexy, and Hutchinson and Paris are wonderfully amusing in their multiple, cross-dressing, quick-changing roles.

Back Stage A
(Gwen Orel) Liz Duffy Adams' historical romp of a backstage sex farce about Restoration playwright Aphra Behn displays style, humor, and jaw-dropping wit. Whether speaking in rhymed couplets or hiding in closets, Adams' characters surprise and appeal. It's a workout for all three actors. Two play multiple roles at a great clip, and Behn is onstage constantly. Director Wendy McClellan shines with the storytelling and pace.

CurtainUp A
(Deborah Blumenthal) Maggie Siff...is a spirited, lively, and seductive Aphra...The play’s title, complete with its grammatically clever comma, would lead you to believe it to be more of a rumination on language than it really is. It is quite linguistically rich, and boasts rhyming verbal acrobatics, but the fascinating ruminations on the titular word come only in momentary explorations. Instead, the unexpected is a pleasure —- a sexy, witty and irreverent comedy, and a playful take on history. Those stuffy seminars where I first heard about Aphra Behn should have been so much fun.

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) A playful, funny and inventive comedy...[Ms. Adams'] language has a natural period flavor and a formidable wit; her characters possess the spark of fully animated spirits; and she weaves into her story both biographical detail and cultural context with grace. More remarkably, the play succeeds on its own terms as a potted pastiche of Restoration comedy as well as a lively showcase for the actors...The director, Wendy McClellan, orchestrates the farcical mechanics with the necessary precision...At the play’s center is Ms. Siff’s lovely turn as the ambitious but sensual Behn, who is ultimately more interested in pursuing her artistic freedoms than indulging her amorous ones. Although the play’s sexual politics can be a little overstated and self-congratulatory, Ms. Adams’s smartly conceived unraveling of figures corseted in history honors the remarkable facts of Behn’s ground-breaking career.

Theatermania A-
(Sandy MacDonald) More comic bodice-ripper than feminist tract, Liz Duffy Adams' sprightly farce Or,...perfectly suits its inspiration, the 17th-century playwright and poetess Aphra Behn...Adams' text -- enhanced by Wendy McClellan's energetic direction -- toggles adroitly between the 1660s and the 1960s, and between the formalities of iambic pentameter (as in a curtain-opener speech containing the obligatory cell phone warning) and a more contemporary sensibility. It's a tribute to Adams' nimble wit that the three-century leap always amuses, never jars. She has also done a brilliant job inserting imaginative "what ifs" into the sketchy details available concerning Behn's colorful career...Your mind may take a little hike as Aphra gives rein to an impulse to deliver a brief blank-verse paean to her vision of a Golden Age, a pastoral paradise in which free love supplants war and strife -- but give the visionary her due.

That Sounds Cool A-
(Aaron Riccio) Though Adams is intent on illustrating the ambiguity of character, Wendy McClellan directs with a crisp, clean hand. Even the intentionally sloppy bits, where characters are peeking only parts of their body out of the various rooms and closets in which they've hidden, are done with precision. And rightly so: the play Behn is attempting to finish is the one that she's actually in, and it would be impossible to crack as many jokes at the play's structure if it were not so impeccably upheld...Adams might have gone a bit further--as is, the historical double-meanings are lost, especially among people unfamiliar with Behn. However, there's nothing wrong with a blatant farce, and once can't fault Adams for sticking to her game plan: "Compose yourselves for pleasure," announces Hutchinson at the start of the show. That's perhaps the one thing in Or, that has no alternative.

Nytheatre.com B+
(Lynn Marie Macy) Our heroine, irresistibly brought to life by the talented Maggie Siff, is charming, intelligent, undeterred, courageous, and triumphant...Kelly Hutchinson shines with versatility and spirit in the multiple roles of Nell Gwynne, the Jailor, and Maria, Aphra's loyal servant; and Andy Paris does extraordinary work in the roles of King Charles II, William Scott, and Lady Davenant...Wendy McClellan has directed the piece with heart, creativity, excellent pacing, and grounded humor throughout but for one instance. While it was perhaps, understandably difficult to resist a "campy" approach to Lady Davenant's tour de force monologue, the braver choice may have been to play the character for truth and trust the actor's abilities and Adams's wonderful text to convey the comedy of the scene...This brief departure from theatrical truth also tends to lessen the stakes for us and for Aphra when things get truly dicey later on.

Show Showdown B
(Wendy Caster) While Or, is funny, fast, and well-written, and the three actors (Kelly Hutchinson, Andy Paris, and Maggie Siff) are skilled and entertaining, I wanted more for--and about--Aphra Behn...Aphra Behn pretty much invented the idea of a woman making her living as a writer, and while it's a fun concept to have her involved with both royalty and a famous performer, focusing on her sex life doesn't do her justice. Also, the supposed parallels to the 1960s didn't add much for me...Overall, the period dialogue convinces, the plot amuses, and the characters engage, and the doors slam frequently and farcically, just as they should. I just wanted more.

Time Out NY B
(Helen Shaw) For much of Or, Adams and director Wendy McClellan effectively juggle the ridiculous (the designers deliberately conflate the 1660s with the 1960s) and the sublime. Adams can write mock-Restoration-style nonsense that positively ripples—in the prologue she promises to “show a vast unsettled world within/that open o and nosing thrust of r”—though as a farceur, she has less success at getting multitasking actors into cupboards and out of costumes. Unfortunately, therefore, the play attains headlong speed, but never the element of surprise. Luckily, Siff’s Behn reposes catlike in the center of the maelstrom, exuding predatory zing even when her prey (usually the underwhelming Hutchinson) doesn’t zing back. Paris, however, occasionally gives Siff worthwhile competition.

New Yorker C+
The tissue-thin, self-conscious plot feels like an excuse to have Paris and Hutchinson play multiple characters. The shenanigans are funny at first, but when they get old, the play feels empty. Zane Pihlstrom’s beautiful set brings together the sixteen-sixties and the nineteen-sixties, driving home the point that those eras had a certain relaxed morality in common.

Variety C
(Marilyn Stasio) While this cheeky pastiche artfully mimics the period style and playfully references the highlights of Behn's colorful career, its plot and dialogue lack the flashing wit and biting social commentary of high comedy of manners. Behn was no Congreve or Wycherley, but she was still a member of the club and deserves better than this overly mannered production of what is essentially a trivial sex farce...Once the dramatic situation has been set up, Adams more or less relinquishes any claim to intellectual content or stylistic wit. With Siff ("Mad Men") reduced to playing Behn's omnivorous sexual appetite, and Paris and Hutchinson hopping all over the stage in multiple comic roles, the play devolves into low farce...Helmer Wendy McClellan goes for the obvious, forcing the farcical elements and pushing the actors into mannered performances. Like Zane Pihlstrom's cartoonish set design, the frantic proceedings do engage the brain -- but only to give it a really bad headache.

New York Post A 13; Back Stage A 13; CurtainUp A 13; The New York Times A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; That Sounds Cool A- 12; Nytheatre.com B+ 11; TONY B 10; Show Showdown B 10; New Yorker C+ 8; Variety C 7; TOTAL: 121/11=11 (B+)

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