Provocative in theory, but leaden in practice, Edward Bond's "Restoration" goes over like a ton of brickbats at Arena Stage.
The controversial British playwright, who once raised the ire of the theater-going public by depicting on stage the brutal stoning of an infant in a baby carriage, is lobbing veritable boulders in this 1981 work; while admiring the brute strength involved, one also is forced to conclude that they go clunk, clunk, clunk all evening long.
The light touch has never been Bond's, but it certainly could have helped this time. In "Restoration," which opened a six-week run last night, he is bringing his uncompromising left-wing sensibility to bear on a mock Restoration comedy about the foppish aristocracy and their bumbling, good-hearted servants. That's a little like Jerry Falwell rewriting a steamy Tennessee Williams drama.
The typical Restoration comedy is a frivolous exploration of the manners and mores of the high born, whose prime concern in life is to turn a clever epigram and point a dainty toe. For Bond, however, the form is emblematic of a society built on class privilege and rife with social and political inequities. The point is well taken. But he doesn't so much expose the underpinnings of Restoration comedy as demolish the structure with his sledgehammer. Hell hath no fury like that of the reforming dramatist.
The evening starts out promisingly in the spirit of its 17th-century models, with fatuous Lord Are (Stanley Anderson), as ridiculous as the bee-stung lips on his powdered face, struggling to strike a properly windblown pose in his garden. He is facing economic ruin, and only marriage with the title-hungry daughter of a rich ironmonger will save his estate. No sooner is the marriage consummated, however, than the new Lady Are (Heather Ehlers) reveals a positively hellish temperament and a rampantly acquisitive streak. It's a question of who will do in whom first.
So far, so good. Bond is still hewing more or less to the pattern with such rejoinders as "Style cannot strike at any age -- like a conversion" and an apparently giddy plot about a misalliance. Matters take a drastic turn, however, when Lord Are accidentally kills his wife. Granted, she has been disguising herself as a ghost to give him a good fright, and in Lord Are's lofty view the crime is reprehensible only because it has transpired before breakfast. Still, murder is murder, and if he's not to hang, he has to find someone to pin the rap on. Who better than his loyal valet Bob (Casey Biggs), who doesn't have the wit to protest, let alone the Marxist intuition to question the class system?
Bond spends the rest the evening in a bloodless anger, observing Lord Are and his cronies maneuver poor Bob up the gallows steps, while the servants await the slaughter, like so many little lambs. Only Bob's wife, a black maid (Kim Staunton), dares oppose the ways of this deceitful world, but her attempts to arouse the collective conscience of the downtrodden come to naught. "How can we fight for freedom when you think you've got it?" she asks the imprisoned Bob, who, despite the shackles around his legs, persists in believing Lord Are will engineer a last-minute pardon for him.
Bond is really asking the question of us. In that sense, his title is double-edged, suggesting, as it does, that no "restoration" of decency and fairness is possible without an awareness of the chains that bind. Nominally, the play is set in 18th-century England, but as the program notes, it could just as well be "another time or place." "Restoration" is really a Brechtian polemic, devised to shake the scales from our eyes.
The plot is purposefully disrupted by some 15 songs (by Nick Bica t and John McKinney) -- the dissonant melodies and anachronistic lyrics offering bitter commentary on the proceedings. Twentieth-century rhetoric soon overtakes the brittle Restoration repartee, and as the ironies pile up, Bond underlines them with an increasingly dark pen.
The play contains one truly fierce moment -- when Lord Are maniacally flails Bob's subservient mother (Jeanette Landis) for failing to sew a button on the coat he plans to wear to her son's hanging. Elsewhere, the playwright's single-minded belaboring of the obvious registers as badgering. Unfortunately, Arena's production, directed by Sharon Ott, does little to mitigate the tone and indulges in overkill of its own.
Anderson's transition from fop to monster is adroitly done, and Landis brings some pathos to the housekeeper, who will remain a menial to her dying day. But the other actors accentuate everything base, stupid and self-serving in this world with a zeal that refuses to believe those qualities could be self-evident. The approach is lethal for the comedy, until "Restoration" simply abandons its comic pretensions. Then, it is redundant.
Tom Hewitt, who takes his role as a thieving footman to temple-throbbing heights, is the worst offender. But the performances of Biggs and Ehlers also qualify as pure broadside. And Staunton, as the crusading maid, is defeated by an impossible assignment that requires her to plead, argue, preach, beg for justice. It's Joan of Arc as a nag.
The production has exclamation points everywhere. Sections of the stage, a polished salon floor, are flipped periodically to reveal the somber grating of a prison dungeon. Accusatory spotlights are forever hitting the actors in the face. And, lest we fail to understand that the maid is the hope of the future, in the end she is borne upward on a mobile platform above the fetid smoke of corruption and into a shaft of light streaming over the horizon. We are a far cry from the Restoration dramatists who looked at man's licentiousness and laughed gleefully.
When Bond laughs, it's through gritted teeth. "Restoration" imposes a stern demeanor indeed on the mask of comedy. His models may have been irresponsibly blithe, but he is humorless.
Restoration. By Edward Bond. Music by Nick Bica t and John McKinney. Directed by Sharon Ott; musical direction, David Loud; sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Paul Gallo. With Stanley Anderson, Tom Hewitt, Casey Biggs, Terrence Currier, Heather Ehlers, Kim Staunton, Jeanette Landis, Kim Staunton, Henry Strozier, Halo Wines. At Arena Stage through Feb. 23.