“Good weed,” says the coy Nell Gwynne, setting down her pipe as she stretches out on an elegant chaise longue. Gwynne was toking only on tobacco, but the line is one of many clever parallels between the 1660s and the 1960s drawn by playwright Liz Duffy Adams in “Or,” which opened Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
“Or,” is Adams’ musing on Aphra Behn, England’s first female playwright, who chucked her career as a spy and, after a stint in debtors’ prison, let fly her freak flag atop the resurgent liberality of Charles II’s Restoration. Archly sly, the play is slim and for all its witty style feels inconsequential.
“It’s our turn to make a new golden age,” says Gwynne, the first woman actor on the English stage and a notorious celebrity herself. When we first see her, she and Behn are flirting their way through dirty talk and gossip — with the heat finally charging their libidinous and free affection for each other.
Adams used the conventions of Restoration comedy and farce to concoct this confection. At Park Square, director Leah Cooper’s production uses Michael Hoover’s dreamy set concept to push the play into Behn’s mind. There are three doors evident — plenty enough to slam as multiple characters pop in and out. Annie Cady’s costumes include Behn’s sumptuous gown and lanky knickers for Gwynne. Scene shifts are covered with 1960s music in a 17th-century makeover (Yes, that really is “Hey Joe” you hear on the lute).
Played by Emily Gunyou Halaas, Behn is rushing to meet an overnight deadline for her first script. As Charles II himself (Matt Guidry), Gwynne (Mo Perry) and a few others (Guidry and Perry again in double roles) interrupt her scribbling, we are free to wonder whether this action is simply the manifestation of Behn’s poetic imagination.
On opening night, Perry was applauded off the stage for two separate characterizations, and those small cameos were not even her best work. That came as the sensuous, insouciant Gwynne. There is less meat on the bone for Guidry, as he dispatches very well Charles’ affected royal and randy ego. Guidry is also a desperate former spy.
Gunyou Halaas, whose great strength always has been her interior ease, seems a little stagey as Behn. It’s a style dictated by Adams’ prevailing sense of artifice — and that is why “Or,” does not ultimately feel satisfying.
The play settles too easily for being not much more than a little riff on historical characters. The wit, the sassy resonance between two decades that were 300 years apart, the luscious performances by Perry and Cooper’s expertly paced stagecraft are all things to admire. But can you honestly care about any of these roués? Sorry, I can’t dig it.