THE CAST of Winthrop House Dramatic Society's production of The Plain Dealer asks its audience to "Laugh at fools aloud, before their mistresses." Yet unlike the popular (or unpopular) image of Restoration comedy, this play is more than just laughter, fools and mistresses.
Almost outside the realm of Restoration comedy, The Plain Dealer is practically unique among its seventeenth century counterparts. Whereas the plays of Etherege, Congreve and Farquhar are characterized by a lack of genuine emotion, a plot of less weight than their racy, epigrammatic wit, and an absence of realism, William Wycherley reversed these trends, hastening the decay of the comedy of manners. Pure intellect was replaced by feeling, pure wit by emotion. The Plain Dealer is an intriguing mixture of realism and artificiality, of emotion and intellect, lacking meanwhile the polished style and all-pervasive wit of the great masters.
In John Turner's producation, several of the lead characters are as fully and forcibly acted as Wicherley drew them. The butt for most of the bitter satire, Olivia--an insatiable gossip, scandalmonger and flirt--far surpasses a mere personification of hypocrisy through the impeccable performance of Susie Fisher. The moral horror felt by the playwright at the sight of such a character is infused into the audience. John Sedgwick is an entertaining Freeman, the eloquent mouthpiece for some of Wycherley's most incisive observation.
But the near-tragic character of Fidelia, in love with the hero Manly, yet forced to conceal her feelings and her sex, has the power to make or break the play. Sarah Jane Lithgow's sensitive portrayal draws out of a potentially melodramatic part all the tragic irony of this single pure character, as she follows her rough and faithless lover through a world in which she clearly has no part. There is nothing comic in the character of a woman who is forced, in the guise of a man, to woo another woman on behalf of the man she loves.
Brad Kent, as the "unmannerly sea-dog" and hero Manly, snarls and grimaces his way through the first four acts. Rarely varying either tempo or tone, he renders the not-so-despicable hero totally unbearable. His sudden transformation into the future husband of the victimized Fidelia is, as a result, anything but credible. Both the irony and tragedy of Manly's character are lost in a flood of rage.
Wycherley made even his minor characters convincing and more than mere dramatic foils, but Turner's producation rarely allows them anything but sheer entertainment value. At this, however, they are superb, and David Natzler as Novel, "a pert railing fop and admirer of novelties" carries on his own one-man show.
John Turner's production of The Plain Dealer deserves more attention and praise than it will probably receive. Fascinating and perturbing social contrasts are brought out in a delicate yet piercing fashion. Wycherly's whip lashes out at women, fops, wits, and lawyers as he peers into man's social nature. He beats the sores of hypocrisy and deception so raw that even today they are hard to ignore. His disgust is let loose on an age of paradox and perversity--an age not unlike our own, where a mere consciousness of the profound problems of human life is hardly a satisfactory solution.