It takes a few minutes to become acclimated to Nova Arts Project's immaculate staging of Love Loves a Pornographer, Jeff Goode's wicked parody of a late Victorian comedy of manners. This isn't because the satire is odd and edgy — it's downright classical, if truth be told — but because we don't expect something quite like this from the avant-garde troupe, certainly not after its surreal tempOdyssey, wacky, CSI: Denmark-inspired Hamlet or crazy-quilt Oedipus3. Goode's beguiling sex comedy begins with an obsequious butler, a fine old English country house and fine English landed gentry, who seem to have crash-landed from an unknown play by Pinero, Shaw and, most assuredly, Wilde. Epigrams, waistcoats, dueling pistols — this is not typical Nova territory. But once we shake our head clear of expectations, allow the radiant cast to work its definite magic and relax into Goode's extremely funny play, we're bathed in first-class entertainment all the way. Love is the cleverest play on either side of the bayou this month.
A prolific playwright, Goode has unbridled humor, an ink-blot view of the world and an absolute love of words — qualities that serve him perfectly in Love, his loving, anachronistic tribute to, and parody of, Oscar Wilde. It's difficult to spoof Wilde, since his arch style pricked his own society and class. Of course, Wilde's shallowness and pretense hid great depth, but he wasn't about to say so. Goode takes Wilde's basic tenets — superficial characters, witty dialogue, mistaken/misplaced identities, sublimated sex, tony language – and flicks them with his own brand of body English. Love never falters or loses momentum, it just moves faster and more furiously, making the plot funnier as it becomes more convoluted and improbable. This is a neat trick for any writer, and Goode pulls it off brilliantly. Wilde is definitely smiling.
Love is no slavish imitator, though, and pulls some neat tricks all its own. Fennimore, the Butler, sits offstage at a table loaded with props and reads a newspaper when not "on." Daughter Emily wears proper Victorian garb, yet sports sneakers and striped socks. Earl, Emily's American fiancé, wears 21st-century casual. A child's crayon drawing is talked about as if it were a Gainsborough, and Fennimore uses a TV clicker to announce the act titles. These delectable postmodern deconstructions cheekily add to the fun. The play almost pops in 3-D.
Any detailed description threatens to deflate this finely crafted confection by revealing its numerous twists and surprises, but here are some basics — believe it or not, they're interconnected. Lord Cyril Loveworthy (Seán Patrick Judge) supplements his income by writing pornography under a pseudonym. His nemesis, Reverend Miles Monger (Timothy Evers), the influential literary critic of the Times of London and a sanctimonious prig, might be on intimate terms with Lady Lillian, Cyril's wife (Jenni Rebecca Stephenson). Out of jealousy, might Cyril be dallying with Millicent, Monger's lovely but frustrated wife (Melissa Davis)? Daughter Emily (Katrina Ellsworth) has returned from travels in America not with a genuine earl, as was expected, but with Earl (Bobby Haworth), a questionable mountain man who sells unsavory literature in Flagstaff, Arizona. Mrs. Monger may have committed suicide in the garden, but the guests spend time arguing over who has the proper social standing to investigate. Fennimore (Wayne Barnhill) is chastised for swooning when he should leave that to his betters.
Of course, in plays like this, no one is ever who they seem, and reversals and surprises are a matter of course. Goode keeps us guessing — and listening. Timed to perfection, the words, barbed and dangerous, or flighty and shallow as the clueless characters spouting them, swirl like clouds. Love is intricately structured to allow the witty Wilde-like throwaways their deserved position front and center, such as Lady Lillian's wonderful "No married woman should be left alone with a firearm. The temptation is simply too great." Or Monger's: "Money should never be earned, when it can be inherited."
Under Rob Kimbro's faceted direction, the cast of seven is a dream. Judge is particularly effective in relaying Lord Loveworthy's commanding tone and haughty sense of entitlement. But it is Evers, as the smug Monger, who steals the show with his marvelously twitchy performance. Encased in costumer Kiza Moore's straitlaced greatcoat, with hair combed straight down, glasses nailed to the very tip of his nose, and those long bony fingers constantly on the prowl over his watch chain, he's a George Cruikshank illustration come to life. Self-righteous and proud of it, his dirty little secret drives the play, and Evers takes the wheel with glee.
Amazingly smart and very funny, Love Loves a Pornographer has class, style and wit. The comedy, whose world premiere was only five months ago, proves that new, fresh theater doesn't have to be dumbed down to work like gangbusters. It just has to be good — or better, Goode.