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Glenda Frank


"Measure for Pleasure" by David Grimm.
Directed by Peter DuBois.
The Public Theater (Anspacher), 425 Lafayette St., NYC 10003
Tickets: 212-260-2400 or 800-432-7250
Performances Tuesday –Sat 8:00, Saturday and Sunday 2:00, Sunday 7:00.
March 8-26, 2006
Tickets $50.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank

Lower Manhattan has always been proud of its roots but rarely has that extended to the theatre scene, which is proudly cutting-edge. Today's downtown theatre artists are paving a new route to the future – by looking back. Way back. At the New York Theatre Workshop Will Power created "The Seven," an electric musical by melding a plot by Aeschylus, a much-neglected Greek, with some potent hip-hip music and lyrics. A few blocks north at the Public Theatre, the forefathers are Aristophanes – complete with golden dildos – and bawdy Restoration farce. The play is facetiously titled "Measure for Pleasure," after a more somber Shakespearean morality play. It's very clever, belly-laugh funny, and modern in feeling despite the lavish period costumes by Anita Yavich.

The inspired mayhem of mismatched lovers and boy-on-boy affection was written by David Grimm, whose "Kit Marlowe," another time-traveling narrative at the Public about Shakespeare's rival, offered more swash buckle than comedy. As for the performers, they are familiar faces that on the small thrust stage of the Anspacher seem even more accomplished. For one, they are permitted more range in these roles, and they are directed by Peter DuBois, an Alaskan import whose ear for plot twists and characters is as fine as a piano tuner's.

The incomparable Michael Stuhlbarg (Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination for "The Pillowman") with that seductive voice plays Blunt, the valet, whose resolve to rescue Molly Tawdry from a life in the streets sets the chain of events into motion and fuels the complications.

The beautiful Euan Morton (Boy George in "Taboo," with an Olivier Award and Tony nomination) is a delight as the cynical Molly Tawdry, who falls for a philanderer who doesn't even recognize her face afterwards. When Molly finally becomes one of the family – in a twist of a twist – poor Blunt is almost excised from the play, but true love triumphs. In this world you can be forgiven anything, even coming from the working class.

An even more familiar face, Wayne Knight (Newman from "Seinfeld" and Officer Don Orville from "Third Rock from the Sun") plays Sir Peter Lustforth, the paunchy, misogynistic husband who does more than drool over the lovely, young Hermione Goode (Emily Swallow). By the second act, Knight has proven that he can hold his own comic end against his younger (acting) rivals. He'd probably be terrific in Molière.

One good comic turn deserves another. Suzanne Bertish as his overpainted, off-key wife, who has flashes for her young piano teacher, matches him not just laugh for laugh but trick for trick – and then some. By the end of the play, she has proven herself both agile and worthy of the name Lustforth.

Swallow is less interesting as the put-upon maiden, who is being forced to accept the lusty Lustforth, but she comes to life as the scheming damsel in league with Molly and then the rescuing heroine in the Renaissance equivalent of Plato's (dark, erotic) Retreat. Grimm's research uncovered a secret order called the Hellfire Club, whose motto, inscribed on the entranceway, was "Do as Thou Will." It is there that Susan Blommaert sheds her puritanical black with grace and style in a small gem of a performance.

Grimm's language is so playful, it's probably laugh-aloud even without the stellar cast. Rhymes pile up, mock themselves, parade in twosomes (couplets), then vanish for a while. Jokes, puns, quips, and epigrams flit in and out like colorful birds, but at bottom there is a sincerity of feeling in the exchanges and a vivid depiction of discontented characters who flounder toward happiness. As for the schematics of the plot, the derivations and the allusions – they are the intellectual game of it all, a way to open and close dramatic doors. Molière would have loved it, especially the discovery scene, but Grimm has insured that even those who have never heard of Wycherley or Congreve will have a rare, spectacular, and joyful theatre experience.


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