Dallas — It’s 1660, and King Charles II, finally ascending to the English throne after years of civil war and unrest, is ready to party. Under the previous Puritan regime, all public stage productions were strictly forbidden throughout London as per a directive from Westminster in 1642 noting that they all too commonly expressed “lascivious Mirth and Levity.” Charles, always a fan of lasciviousness, mirth, and levity, made it his mission to bring about a new golden age of English theatre, first granting exclusive play-staging rights to two new theater companies, and following that up with, scandalously, a proclamation that women were for the first time permitted to perform onstage.
This, then, is the setting for Pegasus Theatre’s A Proper Man, a loose, fast-paced romp that depicts the trials and tribulations of playwright Stephen Kickhim, Esq.—Charles II’s ninth-favorite poet-playwright, if he says so himself—who seeks to stage a production that will bring him the titles and acclaim he so richly deserves, but that keeps any upstart females off his stage. With nods to British comedy classics from Monty Python to Blackadder, the play, written by Steven Young and directed by Ashley Rountree, shows promise, with well-conceived and witty wordplay in sections, but struggles mightily with tone in conveying anything of substance about the battle-of-the-sexes issues it seeks to explore.
The piece comes to us from Pegasus Theatre’s Fresh Reads New Play Festival held during its previous season, where it took top honors, leading Pegasus to stage it as their final show of the current season.
On to the plot. Stephen Kickhim, Esq. (had you heard? Charles II’s ninth-favorite poet-playwright) has a problem. The theaters are finally open again, and there’s an explosion of new productions throughout London; Charles II is even holding a playwriting competition. How to distinguish himself, to rise above his peers, to move up to become, perhaps, the eighth-favorite poet-playwright of the king? Eureka—a play chockablock with sex and violence, staged starring real-life convicts! So Kickhim (Kevin Fuld), supervised by the Puritan Master of the Revels Reverend Able Bender (David Helms), has come to London’s oldest prison, a blood-soaked abattoir dubbed the Clink, to scout talent. Aided by prison jailer, Spotty (Chris Messersmith) (who displays a surprisingly thorough knowledge of the history of western theater), Kickhim and Reverend Bender audition the only available prisoners—Knobby (Robert San Juan), Dick Wilkins (Nathan Willard), and the improbably named Fluffy (Gordon Fox).
Having reconciled himself to their dubious talents, and having persuaded Reverend Bender into playing the piece’s “damsel” (little persuasion is required—Bender is remarkably enthusiastic about the potential cross-dressing for a man who declares that he “puts the pure in Puritan”), Kickhim’s production seems on track. But auditions are suddenly interrupted by the arrival of London’s newly minted first actress Ms. Margaret Hughes (Lauren Floyd), along with her patron (and Charles II’s mistress) Nell Gwyn. Margaret, outraged that Kickhim won’t cast women in his productions (“A woman? Playing a woman?,” sneers Bender, “Where’s the artistry in that?”), demands the right to audition for Kickhim’s new piece, going head to head with Reverend Bender in a woman-to-fake-woman face-off to settle once and for all who’s the most womanly of them all, and what exactly, in the end, is a proper man.
A Proper Man doesn’t lack ambition, and the cast deserves kudos for uniformly throwing themselves into the fray with gusto. Fuld’s Kickhim is a game straight man for the majority of the show, striving to keep the more colorful characters on track; his seething frustration is palpable, as is an unwanted, but undeniable chemistry with Floyd’s Margaret, whose over-the-top “damseling” showcased a flair for physical comedy. Gordon Fox’s Fluffy (last name also Fluffy, latest scion of a long and illustrious line of Fluffys) is a frequent scene stealer, along with Robert San Juan’s dim but enthusiastic Knobby and Nathan Willard’s taciturn Dick. Chris Messersmith’s Spotty has some of the play’s choicest dialogue in its first act, and delivers it with a dry, gruff wit. Special mention must be made of David Helms as Reverend Bender, who gives a delightfully weird, controlled turn from the puritanical to the perverse and back again. Also swooping in to chew on the scenery is the piece’s deus ex machina, Charles II himself, played with lusty glee by Michael Speck.
But in the end, the piece’s farcical elements mostly spin their wheels, if enjoyably. The only scene to engage directly with questions regarding a woman’s role in society is set completely apart from the rest of the action: two figures spotlighted on a darkened stage and played completely in earnest. Given the abruptness of the shift in tone from absolute nonsense to heartfelt sincerity, then back again, it cannot help but fall flat, and the play struggles to recover its momentum even as it comes to its madcap conclusion.
Flaws notwithstanding, an energetic and talented cast help A Proper Man barrel through to its happy, bawdy ending, clearly taking the show’s own advice to heart: “If you’re going to play a woman, grab the role by the balls.”