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Doug Wright’s mordant and often quite funny Marquis de Sade comedy, Quills, begins with a penetration and ends with a birth, so you might say the author has an optimistic view of the world. Optimism tempered by irony, that is. The penetration is quill-into-inkwell (grandly accompanied by an orchestral fanfare), while the birth is of a book—a de Sade volume so appalling in its filth and violence that the marquis’ name will forever after be linked to cruelty.

In our own, less shockable era, such notoriety would likely die aborning, snuffed out by the dulling repetition and imitation that are inevitable byproducts of contemporary scandal. Art and literature don’t have the staying power they did when de Sade was writing at the turn of the 19th century. Nor the clout. For all the fuss made over NEA grants, the notion that the pen could ever have been considered mightier than the sword strikes most people as ludicrous in an age that measures literacy by one’s ability to fill out forms and understand advertising jingles.

Which is, perhaps, why it has occurred to Wright to locate hope for the power of the word in an unlikely spot—the censorious rumblings of the right. He does so by reworking a time-honored notion: that the suppression of ideas corrupts society far more surely than those ideas ever could on their own, and that no one ends up more corrupted than the folks who actually do the suppressing.

To illustrate this, he peeks in on Charenton Asylum on the outskirts of Paris, on the day in 1807 when a tough new chief physician, Doctor Royer-Collard (Paul Morella), takes over. Royer-Collard is determined to stanch the flow of pornography from the cell of Charenton’s most infamous inmate—the erudite but grotesquely perverse Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade—with thumbscrews if necessary. The more permissive Abbé de Coulmier (Steven Dawn) has been allowing de Sade to write as therapy, seeing the patient’s docility as proof that this gentle approach works. This is an attitude the Abbé can maintain only because he hasn’t actually read de Sade’s manuscript, however, and when the doctor forces him to acquaint himself with its contents, he’s disgusted enough to acquiesce to tougher measures.

Both administrators soon discover that stifling the flow of ideas isn’t easy, even in an asylum. Deprived of ink and paper, de Sade (played by a leeringly pixilated Floyd King) turns to such new media as wine and bedlinens, blood and blouses. Forced to sleep sober, naked, and on straw, he becomes a scato-graffitist, painting words on cell walls with excrement. And that’s just for starters. Things get much worse.

Especially for the Abbé, who keeps trying to find humane treatments for a man who revels in things inhumane. As played by Dawn, this decent, overly trusting man of God is all too aware that he’s on a slippery moral slope from the moment he agrees to take away de Sade’s quill. Skidding evermore rapidly down that slope, he’s wide-eyed in horror, and wonderfully obtuse, concentrating so deeply on the manuscript’s blasphemies, for instance, that he quite misses its sexuality, or getting so flustered by the pet names de Sade gives him (“my little suckling, my lip-leech”) that he forgets his mission entirely.

King’s de Sade is as funny as he is insidious, whether trading pages of pornography for kisses from a virginal maid, or gleefully composing tales of perversion designed to arouse even as they horrify. More to the dramatic point, while he’s never less than a certifiable monster, he becomes creepily empathetic as he’s persecuted by authorities who increasingly employ his methods and rationales.

The others are mostly deliriously over-the-top. Kerry Waters plays de Sade’s self-dramatizing wife as a harridan who is possessed by comic demons and haunted by memories. When the chief doctor suggests she lower her voice while in his office because screaming women at Charenton often find themselves clapped into leg-irons, her suggestively purred, “I am no stranger to such contraptions,” would be hard to improve on. Kryztov Lindquist is amusingly foppish as an unscrupulous architect, and Mary Teresa Fortuna is nearly as complex a mix of innocence and corruption as a prison laundress here as she was as the feral little girl in The Pitchfork Disney two seasons ago.

Morella didn’t seem to be having as much fun as the others on opening night for reasons I couldn’t divine. The chief doctor is a self-deluding, Gingrich-style authoritarian, which you’d think would make him a riot as the inmates take over the asylum. Instead, the character’s eyes go dead and his expression turns grim, almost as if Morella, who was brilliantly conflicted as a similarly pressed and stressed character in Wright’s Watbanaland last year, were still haunted by that play’s seriousness. The performance is otherwise fine and certainly doesn’t damage the evening; it just doesn’t help it much.

Wright has conceived Quills as if it were one of de Sade’s exercises in grand guignol, and director Howard Shalwitz—who directed the play’s Obie-winning premiere in Manhattan last season—has served the evening up at Woolly Mammoth with approximately equal emphasis on the grand and the ghoulish. Making clever use of James Kronzer’s dank, musty, castlelike asylum, tucked behind a crumbling proscenium arch and tattered theater curtain that extend on a diagonal into the audience, he sends the performers clambering up steep stairways and into one another’s scenes, almost always accompanied by blasts of monster-movie underscoring contributed by sound designer Scott Burgess. Shalwitz also comes up with some nifty visual jokes, including one toward the evening’s end that’s pure Addams Family.

What he can’t quite do is keep Quills from seeming overlong, which it is by about 45 minutes. Wright is such a prodigiously gifted crafter of dialogue that it’s easy to understand a reluctance to edit, but by evening’s end you can’t help leaping ahead of the play, getting the point of scenes even as they begin. At a post-show discussion on opening night, the author spoke of how de Sade had tired on about the 88th day of his 120 Days of Sodom and resorted to writing one-line descriptions of the remaining debaucheries. The stories King’s de Sade recites in Quills were adapted from those one-liners, and while they never seem stretched, some of the play’s connective tissue does.

Wright’s story, incidentally, is fiction but is loosely based on fact. De Sade was incarcerated at Charenton from 1803 (when he was 63) until his death some 11 years later, his upkeep paid for by his wife, who wanted relief from the scandals his behavior and prolific writing were causing. Her plan wasn’t altogether successful, since the Abbé de Coulmier gave the Marquis the run of the asylum and permitted him to write and stage theatrical events for fashionable Parisian society as part of his therapeutic treatment (an aspect of his incarceration memorably depicted in Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade). These performances did cease at the urging of Royer-Collard, but not until 1813, by which time the Marquis’ health was failing anyway. He died on Dec. 2, 1814.

De Sade’s literary output was vast, including at least 18 novels, 24 plays, and countless fables, journals, memoirs, and political pamphlets. While his sexual excesses and obsessions have dominated his public image, his thoughts on the necessity of taking meaningful (by which he meant criminal) action have influenced many subsequent philosophers.

That’s what interests Wright about him, and presumably what led him to script the evening as a witty, fiercely intellectual debate. Quills is, in essence, summed up in a line uttered by one of its horrified characters about “staring into the face of evil and seeing a terrible beauty.” Art lets you do that. Censorship makes you look away.CP