WASHINGTON, February 12, 2019. Having recently survived the Mother of All Polar Vortexes, Washingtonians certainly deserve a winter break. Some comic relief would help. Enter, stage left, a most welcome antidote to the slings and arrows of outrageous weather. Namely, the Folger Theatre’s new production of Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s sort-of-historical but also contemporary comic romp.
After its premier at London’s reconstructed Globe Theatre, Nell Gwynn headed to the city’s West End in 2016 for a proper run. There, it copped a prestigious Olivier Award as the season’s best new comedy. This season, Nell crossed the Atlantic, and Folger managed to land its East Coast US premiere.
Life and times of the Restoration Era
So who is Nell Gwynn, this play’s eponymous heroine? One of Restoration Drama’s more colorful figures, she’s the actress who arose from the underbelly of London to become, arguably, the libidinous King Charles II’s most beloved mistress.
By happy coincidence, it was Charles who helped restore live theater to a grateful London after its prolonged absence. Previous to his reign, Oliver Cromwell and his not-so-merry men had chopped off the head of Charles’ dad, King Charles I, to launch their sour, kingless reign over England. En route, they banished theatrical performances and other godless revels. When Cromwell passed on, what was left of his regime soon imploded. Result: Charles Number Two was invited back to reboot the English monarchy.
And with the new king’s blessing, the London theater scene hit the “Reset” button as well. What we now know as the “Restoration Drama” era promptly resulted. Long-repressed, London’s theatrical restoration was notable for its parade of bawdy and (occasionally) first rate comedies. A few of the best, penned by the likes of William Wycherley, George Etherege, William Congreve and George Farquhar, survive to this day.
Nell Gwynn and the rise of London’s “lady actors”
Contemporary playwright Jessica Swale seems to have written Nell Gwynn to re-imagine that colorful theater era. But she does it in a way that can relate to 21stcentury audiences while remaining faithful – more or less – to English history and its Restoration Theater scene. She embellishes her story with slyly knowing asides, contemporary political winks and assorted anachronisms to freshen things up. As one might expect, she also grafts a proto-feminist onto Nell Gwynn.
As for this play’s eponymous heroine? The historical Nell, as best we can ascertain, began life a desperately impoverished London girl whose single mom likely ran a Cheapside brothel. As she grew a bit older, Nell probably worked in the family business as well.
At some point and in some way, Nell became involved in the Restoration Theater scene. Which, at the time, was quite unusual. That’s because women weren’t allowed into the acting profession on the English stage. All female characters at the time were impersonated by men.
But when Charles signaled his okay for “women actors” to appear on stage, the Restoration die was cast. The appearance of these “women actors” onstage seems to have inspired a more overt sexiness, particularly in Restoration comedies. It was viewed as a realistic, value-added feature in the best of those already bawdy Restoration plays.
A (Restoration) Star Is Born
Nell soon became one of the most popular and one of the best known of that era’s “lady actors,” which is probably why we see mention of her in the literary and social history of the times. The other reason, of course, was Nell’s long-running star role as King Charles’ most beloved mistress.
In Nell Gwynn, the play, Jessica Swale roughly follows the story-arc of her dramatic heroine. But her play unfolds episodically, a bit more like a picaresque novel built on a slice of Restoration theater life.
The Folger’s production of Nell Gwynn views all the action as a stage. Its recurring scenic backdrop is a lavish royal-red stage curtain. Other props are few but authentic. All are the work of set designer Tony Cisek. Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s period-authentic costuming dresses things up considerably with the right dash of Restoration gradiosity.
Chief players: Allison Luff as Nell Gwynn
Appropriately, Allison Luff is the star of this production and the title character, Nell Gwynn. Making the most of this opportunity, she plays things straight for the most part, while hamming it up, appropriately, when the situation calls for it. She freely dispenses wicked bits of humor along the way as well as pointedly piquant asides. But while Luff, understandably, has a good time with this colorful role, she thankfully avoids the ever-present opportunity chew up the scenery, leaving plenty of room for the supporting cast to shine.
Within the context of this play, Nell’s chief antagonists / love interests are actor-mentor Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) and, of course, good King Charlie himself (R.J. Foster).
Quinn Franzen’s Charles Hart
As Charles Hart, Nell’s theatrical mentor, Quinn Franzen behaves mostly like gentleman toward Nell, at least within the context of London’s libidinous theater environment. Inevitably, the pair become an item.
Sadly, the lesser Charles eventually finds himself replaced by the more royal Charles, leading to some bitterness and regret. But eventually, he’s a sport, and lets bygones be bygones. Franzen creates a believable, sympathetic and very likeable theater personality who becomes a worthy if fleeting love interest for the free-spirited Nell.
R. J. Foster as Charles II
R.J. Foster’s portrayal of King Charles seems surprisingly spot on for such a complicated real life character. The real Charles’ turbulent monarchy faced the unenviable task of reconstructing Britain’s constitutional monarchy. And in so doing, he worked with advisors who seemed far more fractious than President Trump’s ever-changing cast of cabinet secretaries and White House officials.
Foster grasps this political complexity in his portrayal of Charles, generally maintaining a civil surface. But Foster lets the mask slip from time to time, letting us glimpse the secret Charles, whoaw underestimated inner king can match wits with implacable opponents and troublesome mistresses alike.
An outstanding supporting cast
Nell’s supporting cast adds considerable color to Swale’s dramatic slice of life. Notable performers: Nigel Gore as the constantly frustrated theatrical producer Thomas Killigrew, and Michael Glenn as the pathologically uncertain and confused playwright John Dryden. In real life, Dryden was a far greater poet than he was a playwright, and we see this borne out throughout this play.
An additional sweeping hat tip goes to Christopher Dinolfo. He portrays the ambisexterous actor and female impersonator Edward Kynaston for all it’s worth: jealous, selfish, histrionic, funny and completely over the top. Yet Dinolfo also allows us to glimpse his character’s vulnerable side, as he sees his long-time livelihood gradually displaced by the new girl on the block.
Swale’s re-imagined Restoration Drama madhouse unfolds comfortably under the steady hand of director Robert Richmond. Andrew F. Griffin’s low-key lighting scheme effectively spotlights the action. But sound, by Matt Otto, is a little hard on the ears in the time leading up to the opening scene. Turning down the volume just a bit might help here. The opening musical cacophany seemed a bit too Baz Luhrmann-esque for this reviewer.
Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn is a worthwhile if somewhat modernized riff on the wild and crazy Restoration Drama era, lightened up nearly always with a delightful comic touch. It’s passable as literary, political and dramatic history. But it treads on thin social ice when imposing progressive 21st century attitudes on an era which, however chaotic, was still tightly bound in traditional English class structure.
In short, Nell Gwynn is a fun play that resurrects history to a point. It emphasizes the humor and incongruity of Nell’s story line, seasoning it with social and political commentary. Above all, Nell Gwynn at its best seeks to entertain theatergoers rather than hectoring them with the topical talking points of the week.
Rating: ***(Three out of four stars)
Nell Gwynn continues its run through March 10 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, call 202-544-7077, or visit the Folger Theatre’s website.
— Headline image: “They’ve put a woman on the stage!” Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) becomes a stage sensation in England.
(Also pictured L to R: Catherine Flye, Quinn Franzen, Christopher Dinolfo, Kevin Collins.)
Nell Gwynn is on stage at Folger Theatre, January 29 – March 10, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Diliberto.)