For the first show of his tenure as the artistic director of the Folger Theatre Group, John Neville-Andrews has plunged into the 17th century and rooted out "The Rover," a largely forgotten comedy of intrigue by the largely forgotten Aphra Behn. It's a decidedly bold gesture on his part, calculated, I suspect, to show the adventurousness of the new Folger regime and sweep out some of the cobwebs left by the old.
It pays off, unfortunately, in an evening of nearly unrelieved tedium.
Behn may have been one of the first women to earn her living as a playwright, and her reputation in her day may have rivaled the bawdiest of the Restoration writers. By no contemporary yardstick, however, can "The Rover" be considered a misplaced masterpiece. As pruned and adapted by Michael Diamond, who is also the director, the script has little of the biting wit and the worldly wisdom of the best Restoration comedies.
What it does have is what is least enduring about Restoration comedy -- one of those impossibly convoluted plots that depends rather insistently on misunderstandings, masks and cross-dressing to keep going. Behn draws her characters from the usual ranks -- swashbuckling rakes and spirited women, all of them straining toward the pleasures of the bed -- but under her pen they are obvious types without any of the animating eccentricities you find in Wycherly or Farquhar, for example.
"The Rover" follows the misadventures of four English carousers who descend on Naples at carnival time, determined to chase skirts, quaff their share of ale and, if the occasion presents itself, stir up a rumpus or two. The title character makes a dramatic entrance at the Folger, sliding down a rope from the second balcony onto the stage, but then proceeds to entangle himself in the arms of every woman he encounters. If the play has a leitmotif, I suppose it is the Rover's misfortunate tendency to expose inadvertently the schemes of his best friend, who is trying to spirit away a lady love of his own.
I'm not sure what it would take to rehabilitate such purposeful confusions for our times. Probably the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Folger production is flat and colorless, and while the acting is in some instances perfectly serviceable, serviceable doesn't pull off the needed miracle. There are, I fear, whole patches of the play that pass by without provoking so much as a titter of audience reaction.
The highlight of act one is a melee in the marketplace, with swords, sausages, and whole bolts of cloth flying fast, if not so furiously. The highlight, as it is, of act two, involves a dull-witted character named Blunt, who has been fleeced of his money and clothes by a prostitute. He takes refuge in a fountain and shortly afterward is urinated on by his drunken companions. Most of the time, however, these characters are indulging in fruitless games of verbal seduction and betrayal, swearing eternal love on one hand, while slipping the other onto the nearest thigh.
Diamond has inserted bits of comic business here and there, the way a cook adds a last-minute dash of thyme in hopes it will salvage the stew. But Diamond's idea of invention is having a maid, whose fingers have just been kissed repeatedly by her lover, wipe them off on his coat. As the Rover, Jack Wetherall quickly exhausts his charms, which is regrettable since he rarely leaves the stage. Sherry Skinker has some caricatural zest as one of the women he attacks, although she is costumed to look like Charley's Aunt. But why blame them or their comrades? It's a losing battle. "The Rover" possesses all the velocity and panache of a holiday line at the supermarket.
THE ROVER. By Aphra Behn. Adapted and directed by Michael Diamond. Sets, Hugh Lester; costumes, Kay Haskell; lighting, Robby Monk; fights, Chip Bolcik. With Jack Wetherall, Jim Beard, Sherry Skinker, Lucinda Jenny, Rebecca Nelson, Howard Lee Sherman. At the Folger Theatre through Feb. 21.