Nell Gwynn, the play, much like Nell Gwynn, the woman, may succeed not in spite of its faults but because of them.
The show, a British import going on now until March 10 at Folger, is silly, too clever by half, and often impossible to believe — even though it’s based on a true story. Still, it’s tough to imagine leaving this two-act comedy in a bad mood. It’s a prostitute wiff’a ‘eart of gold, it is.
Oliver Cromwell is dead, and the royalists have returned to power: Welcome to Restoration-era London! Charles II is on the throne, and it turns out he’s a theatre fan, so the playhouses are reopened and this time, women are allowed to “walk the boards” along with the men. Enter our Ms. Gwynn (a sparkling Alison Luff), a former prostitute-turned-orange-seller with a quick wit, expressive face, and fine voice that get her noticed and eventually cast as one of the first female players. There, as legend and Jessica Swale’s overly precious script tell us, she is spotted by the king.
The rest, as they say, is history, but here it makes for some flowery feminist revisionism. Sure, ok, that’s cool. But must they wink at us so very much?
As directed by Robert Richmond, Nell Gwynn has a smile on its face and a song in its heart (music by Kim Sherman), though it forgoes historic verisimilitude in favor of modern sensibilities. Even Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s costumes feel 17th century by way of the 21st. One typically jokey moment finds a playwright nearly writing out the story of Titanic, nudge-nudge, before one of his coworkers calls the plot the dumbest thing she’s ever heard.
The modern lens goes double for the performances, about which it’s hard to say enough. As the gang of players our leading lady takes up as her second family, Quinn Franzen, Christopher Dinolfo, Nigel Gore, Alex Michell and particularly Catherine Flye are all simply wonderful. Watching them ping-pong punchlines amongst each other is the show’s greatest strength, particularly once Luff’s Gywnn joins their ranks. These are actors’ actors — and playing actors. And they elevate what could have been overly cutesy and self-aware.
Luff herself never gets a beat wrong. I wish Swale’s script didn’t have so much it wanted To Do with her, but the actor-ress at center stage never looks lost.
You won’t “believe” a moment of this show. But you’ll probably like it anyways.