The Constant Couple
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 25, 2007
I don't know much about what life was like in London 300 years ago; if it was anything like what's on view in The Constant Couple then I'm glad I didn't live there then. This is a satire, but satires are founded mostly in truth; the desperation of all the characters in this oddly modern Restoration comedy is almost alarming, even though it fuels plenty of worthy gags. It's a play that's funny but not exactly fun and certainly never heart-warming as it exposes the decadence, hypocrisy, and amorality of a broad swath of English society at the time of Queen Anne.
Consider the roster of characters. There's Vizard, as slimy as the animal that his name rhymes with, pretending to be pious but actually devious and manipulative; he gets one of the main subplots going here by sending his friend Sir Harry Wildair to the home of the respectable Lady Darling—whom he has told Sir Harry is a bawd (i.e., a madam). There's Sir Harry himself, utterly self-possessed but also utterly self-involved; the kind of man who cheerfully answers an accusation of cowardice with a recitation of his annual income (£8,000—quite a lot of money 300 years ago!). There's Clincher, a self-described "beau," which seems to be what a man calls himself when he's a slave to fashion (I'd call him a fop); he inherited money when his father died, and instead of mourning, he's dressed himself in foolish finery (including a lavender powdered wig) and is making plans to attend something called the "Jubilee."
All three of these fellows are rivals for the affections of Lady Lurewell, a seductress (courtesan?) whose stated aim is to punish all men for the wrongs done to her by one young man a dozen years before. (Farquhar is admirably sophisticated about Clincher on this point, by the way; he does not assume—as a contemporary audience seems so wont to do—that a man who likes to dress up in frilly clothes in necessarily homosexual.)
Lurewell has a fourth suitor, one Colonel Standard, whose army unit has just been disbanded and who is about to hire himself out as a mercenary in Hungary—until his honor, vis-a-vis the Lady, is challenged. He's something of a prig, and quick to anger; but he turns out to be the most decent person in the play.
Even the supporting characters are on the make, as it were. A fifth man carrying on with Lady Lurewell is Vizard's uncle, a merchant who is actually a thief named (aptly) Alderman Smuggler. Lady Darling, respectable though she may be, is instantly willing to marry off her daughter to a rich man; said daughter, Angelica, is her only slightly more naive co-conspirator. Servants are ready to betray their masters or mistresses for a gold coin; an unruly mob is eager to hang Clincher when they believe momentarily that he killed one of their number, a porter. Even Clincher's younger brother, a rube from the country, turns out to be as mercenary as his brother.
So, there's nobody that's easy to root for in The Constant Couple, though there is considerable intrigue to relish and enjoy. George Farquhar, who wrote this in 1699 (this is the New York debut) and is better known for The Beaux' Stratagem and The Recruiting Officer nowadays (though The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre says this was his biggest hit), is skillful in his plotting and often witty in his words. But the bitterness underlying the comedy never goes away; I was left with the not unsatisfactory impression of a young playwright railing against a lot of the injustice he saw around him in the only way he knew how.
Director Jean Randich offers a staging that sticks to the play's period while adding sly anachronistic references (like putting the porter on roller shoes); it seemed to me that the pace could have been picked up a bit. The set by Harry Feiner is spare but effective, while Liz Covey's costumes are, in the Pearl's fashion, opulent and appropriate. The 14-person cast is generally fine, with the most notable contributions coming from Bradford Cover as the unflappable Sir Harry (can anyone say "pshaw" with quite the panache that he can?), Dominic Cuskern as the devious Alderman Smuggler, John Pasha as the stalwart Colonel Standard, and David L. Townsend as the scheming Vizard. Eduardo Placer overdoes the foppishness of Clincher, though, and I wondered if Rachel Botchan has quite captured the underlying melancholy of Lady Lurewell, whose contempt for the opposite sex stems from genuine hurt more than wanton mischief.
It's fascinating to see a play like The Constant Couple, one that's entirely unfamiliar and will likely not be done again on a New York stage anytime soon; that's one of the great glories of the Pearl's mission. This particular piece is less to my taste than other comedies of its period, but it's nevertheless well worth a look. Its resonance, in certain aspects, is neatly jarring.