The Fol­ger’s “Nell Gwynn” has lots of stylish 17th­cen­tury cos­tumes but less hu­mor and char­ac­ter.

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The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY PETER MARKS fol­ger.edu/the­atre.

“Nell Gwynn,” the stylis­tic hodge­podge of an of­fer­ing at Fol­ger The­atre, rep­re­sents what you might call the com­edy of hope — the hope be­ing that the next scene will be fun­nier than the one just com­pleted.

But no, Jes­sica Swale’s long, thin play about one of the first ac­tresses to tread the Lon­don boards af­ter King Charles II re­opened the the­aters in the mid1600s never quite scales the sum­mit of giddy plea­sure it so en­er­get­i­cally strives for.

Al­though Swale pro­vides more than a few ripe op­por­tu­ni­ties for ac­tor-y scenery-chew­ing, her char­ac­ters come across as blurry pho­to­copies of fig­ures from more richly con­ceived tales of the English stage. The Os­car-winning “Shake­speare in Love” comes to mind and, more to the point, Jef­frey Hatcher’s “Com­pleat Fe­male Stage Beauty,” set at the same time as “Nell Gwynn,” and which even fea­tures one of the same char­ac­ters. (It be­came the 2004 movie “Stage Beauty.”)

As this is the Fol­ger, with its con­fi­dent re­la­tion­ship with the pe­riod in ques­tion, the de­sign el­e­ments of di­rec­tor Robert Richmond’s pro­duc­tion are lovely — in par­tic­u­lar, the 17th-cen­tury wardrobe fin­ery by Mariah An­zaldo Hale. Still, you can sense that the ac­tors, be­gin­ning with Ali­son Luff as the plucky Nell her­self, and con­tin­u­ing through a gallery of ditsy scribes, hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing per­form­ers, du­plic­i­tous roy­als and tem­pes­tu­ous con­cu­bines, are strug­gling to rus­tle up some res­o­nant essence of per­son­al­ity. They never get much be­yond plummy ac­cents and pos­tur­ing.

Luff has the ma­jor lift, as the story — based on the real Nell — dis­gorges the de­tails of her ex­tra­or­di­nary rise, from Cheap­side pros­ti­tute and or­ange seller to cel­e­brated ac­tress and con­sort to the king. (She died of a stroke at 37.) The trans­for­ma­tion, though, is never as ap­par­ent in Luff ’s coun­te­nance as it is in her cos­tumes. Pos­sessed of a splen­did voice, the ac­tress has her most evoca­tive mo­ments in the reen­act­ments of scenes from the plays by John Dry­den (Michael Glenn) in which the com­i­cally gifted Gwynn ap­peared. (New mu­sic has been added by Kim Sher­man.)

Still, there’s no trace in her por­trayal of Nell’s hum­ble ori­gins, and the “Pyg­malion”-like as­pects of “Nell Gwynn” are never ac­ti­vated. An early scene, in which the ar­dent Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) schools her in the ges­tu­ral “at­ti­tudes” ac­tors of the time had to in­cul­cate, fails to vividly il­lu­mi­nate the bridge Nell was cross­ing. For that mat­ter, Swale never opens a win­dow on Nell’s psy­che, so that we can fully em­pathize with the chal­lenges she un­der­takes. The play segues from sit­commy scenes on the stage of the King’s Com­pany, headed by the eter­nally pained Thomas Kil­li­grew (Nigel Gore, in one of the pro­duc­tion’s most per­sua­sive per­for­mances), to strained rom-com in­ter­ludes be­tween Nell and Charles II.

R. J. Fos­ter makes for a dash­ing though in­scrutably fickle king; why he hu­mil­i­ates Nell by parad­ing be­fore her his lat­est French mis­tress (Regina Aquino) is one of the many as­pects of “Nell Gwynn” left foggy (over the course of 2 hours and 45 min­utes). Christo­pher Di­nolfo proves amus­ingly hammy at times, as a histri­onic gen­tle­man of the com­pany whose sta­tus is di­min­ished af­ter women be­gin as­sum­ing the fe­male lead­ing roles that be­longed to him. And set de­signer Tony Cisek keeps things agree­ably sim­ple, with plush red draperies serv­ing to de­fine both the Lon­don stage and the king’s palace.

What’s miss­ing most of all is an an­swer to the ques­tion that comes to mind re­peat­edly as you watch a mon­u­men­tal so­cial change oc­cur­ring on the Restora­tion stage: How did al­low­ing women to play women af­fect the writ­ers of the time and, be­yond them, the ac­tors and au­di­ences, whose own vi­sion was broad­ened? It’s too bad that “Nell Gwynn” is con­tent to gaze at sur­faces and never look below.

Jes­sica Swale’s ‘Nell Gwynn’ never quite scales the sum­mit of giddy plea­sure it so en­er­get­i­cally strives for.

Nell Gwynn, by Jes­sica Swale. Di­rected by Robert Richmond. Set, Tony Cisek; cos­tumes, Mariah An­zaldo Hale; light­ing, An­drew F. Grif­fin; sound, Matt Otto. $42-$85. Through March 10 at Fol­ger The­atre, 201 E. Capi­tol St. SE. 202-544-7077.

BRITTANY DILIBERTO

From left, Caitlin Cisco, Quinn Franzen and Christo­pher Di­nolfo in “Nell Gwynn,” a com­edy that doesn’t elicit much laugh­ter.

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