A CONTRIVED and confused production at Arena Stage further encumbers the wretched "Restoration," a comedy-drama by British playwright Edward Bond. Even Arena's arsenal of staging and lighting effects can't cosmetically disguise this gobbler.
Intending to revise and "restore" Restoration-era comedy with a contemporary sensibility, Bond takes a familiar story of decent, simple folk ill-used by dastardly, decadent aristocrats and pads the trifling tale to three hours with 15 ludicrously portentous Brecht-Weill-styled "social commentary" songs. The uncertain melodies for Bond's lame lyrics were written by Nick Bicat and John McKinney.
In the strict hierarchical structure of 18th- century England (or "another place at another time," as the playwright helpfully notes), Lord Are, a penniless poseur, marries the shrill social-climbing daughter of a well-to-do merchant so he can sport his 600-year-old title in the style to which he is accustomed. Lord Are accidentally runs his dissatisfied wife through with a sword, and after some comic corpseplay, frames his footman, honest Bob Hedges, for the deed.
After much dreary deliberation (and even more hysterical handwringing from Bob's black wife, Rose, who is burdened with being the play's conscience), innocent Bob is hanged and Lord Are's evil goes unpunished by God or man. Even Bob's own mother goes along with his execution, for the good of society. Bond's message is simple, and not strikingly original: Man is oppressed by an absurd society and inequitable laws, and we need a change.
Guest director Sharon Ott's inconsistencies match the play's, and she seems to have taken this assignment as a chance to play with Arena's expensive toys. Early on, she has the characters belt, like pop singers into microphones, then discards the affectation. Ott also has Bob's newly bereaved wife ascend, singing, toward the ceiling, as in the closing scene from "Cats," but with less apparent purpose.
Arena's company gives the script and songs more than their due. Stanley Anderson is artful as the laughable Lord Are, and Casey Biggs is good and straightforward as the wronged Bob Hedges. Halo Wines, as the ghastly and gluttonous Lady Are, has the evening's choicest visual moment when she rises from the stage in a swirling, candlelit fog, but her acting efforts are largely wasted.
"Restoration" is restored briefly to life near the end, as Lord Are displays his true malevolence, and Bond displays a flair for nasty ironies: The hangman's wife discusses the details of her husband's job with the condemned man's mother; and later, this same mother, handed her son's pardon, unwittingly burns it in the hearth. Sadly, there is no restoring the loss of three hours of your evening.
RESTORATION -- At Arena Stage through February 23.