“Nell Gwynn,” the stylistic hodgepodge of an offering at Folger Theatre, represents what you might call the comedy of hope — the hope being that the next scene will be funnier than the one just completed.
But no, Jessica Swale’s long, thin play about one of the first actresses to trod the London boards after King Charles II reopened the theaters in the mid-1600s never quite scales the summit of giddy pleasure it so energetically strives for.
Although Swale provides more than a few ripe opportunities for actor-y scenery-chewing, her characters come across as blurry photocopies of figures from more richly conceived tales of the English stage. The Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” comes to mind and, more to the point, Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” set at the same time as “Nell Gwynn,” and which even features one of the same characters. (It became the 2004 movie “Stage Beauty.”)
As this is the Folger, with its confident relationship with the period in question, the design elements of director Robert Richmond’s production are lovely — in particular, the 17th-century wardrobe finery by Mariah Anzaldo Hale. Still, you can sense that the actors, beginning with Alison Luff as the plucky Nell herself, and continuing through a gallery of ditsy scribes, hyperventilating performers, duplicitous royals and tempestuous concubines, are struggling to rustle up some resonant essence of personality. They never get much beyond plummy accents and posturing.
Luff has the major lift, as the story — based on the real Nell — disgorges the details of her extraordinary rise, from Cheapside prostitute and orange seller to celebrated actress and consort to the king. (She died of a stroke at 37.) The transformation, though, is never as apparent in Luff’s countenance as it is in her costumes. Possessed of a splendid voice, the actress has her most evocative moments in the reenactments of scenes from the plays by John Dryden (Michael Glenn) in which the comically gifted Gwynn appeared. (New music has been added by Kim Sherman.)
Still, there’s no trace in her portrayal of Nell’s humble origins, and the “Pygmalion”-like aspects of “Nell Gwynn” are never activated. An early scene, in which the ardent Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) schools her in the gestural “attitudes” actors of the time had to inculcate, fails to vividly illuminate the bridge Nell was crossing. For that matter, Swale never opens a window on Nell’s psyche, so that we can fully empathize with the challenges she undertakes. The play segues from sitcommy scenes on the stage of the King’s Company, headed by the eternally pained Thomas Killigrew (Nigel Gore, in one of the production’s most persuasive performances), to strained rom-com interludes between Nell and Charles II.
R.J. Foster makes for a dashing though inscrutably fickle king; why he humiliates Nell by parading before her his latest French mistress (Regina Aquino) is one of the many aspects of “Nell Gwynn” left foggy (over the course of 2 hours and 45 minutes). Christopher Dinolfo proves amusingly hammy at times, as a histrionic gentleman of the company whose status is diminished after women begin assuming the female leading roles that belonged to him. And set designer Tony Cisek keeps things agreeably simple, with plush red draperies serving to define both the London stage and the king’s palace.
What’s missing most of all is an answer to the question that comes to mind repeatedly as you watch a monumental social change occurring on the Restoration stage: How did allowing women to play women affect the writers of the time and, beyond them, the actors and audiences, whose own vision was broadened? It’s too bad that “Nell Gwynn” is content to gaze at surfaces and never look below.
Nell Gwynn, by Jessica Swale. Directed by Robert Richmond. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Mariah Anzaldo Hale; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Matt Otto. $42-$85. Through March 10 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu/theatre.