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If Liz Duffy Adams’ 2009 literary farce Or, didn’t already have a perfectly fine title—complete with a comma that looks like a typo but, which like everything else about her smarty-pants play, is truly, madly, deeply premeditated—one might suggest Tinker Swinger Playwright Spy. The piece centers on Aphra Behn, one of the first women in history, so far as we know, to earn her living as a writer. In the mid-17th century, under the reign of King Charles II, Behn was a prolific poet who also created 19 plays and 16 works of prose fiction, many of which would be mined for their feminist and LGBTQ subtexts centuries later, once those terms had been invented. Unlike most seminal women of letters, Behn was celebrated (and condemned) in her own lifetime. But before her literary fame, she’d been an informant in Antwerp, using a dalliance with the Scottish rabble-rouser William Scott to try to glean from him intelligence of value to the British crown. Judge not: Scott was a double agent, too. All’s fair in whatever and whatever.
This much is historically sound. So is the fact that the actress Nell Gwynne, who became a star once England started allowing women to play female roles, was one of King Charles’ mistresses.
Everything else in Adams’ play is, like so many Behn biographies published after her death in 1689, fanciful speculation. Turns out to be right in the wheelhouse of director Aaron Posner and his frequent collaborators Holly Twyford and Erin Weaver, whose collective yen for shows about horny geniuses goes at least as far back as their 2009 Folger Theatre production of Arcadia. Weaver plays the puckish Gwynne as well as Behn’s aged housekeeper and Behn’s fast-talking patron, Lady Davenant, in a showstopping single scene.
Outdoing even Weaver for dextrous quick-changes is Gregory Linington, who earlier this year played George to Twyford’s Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Ford’s Theatre. That’s a fun coincidence because Virginia Woolf—the author, not the play—has a lot to do with why Behn is still remembered, having venerated Behn in her landmark 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own.” Linington’s ability to inhabit both Behn’s former beau, Scott, and her current one, King Charles, in scenes when they’re both in Behn’s room, one hiding from the the other, gives this highbrow comedy an element of pure, delirious slapstick.
In this, Linington gets a big assist from Paige Hathaway’s cavernous set, which makes Behn’s quarters look like a swinging (19)’60s pad, save for those tall wardrobes that Behn’s various partners are forever disappearing into. She and Gwynne have a thing, too, because monogamy is tyranny, y’all.
Writing is often a lonely profession, but Adams portrays Behn as having had both the most fulfilling work life and rewarding sex life one could ask for in her age—or ours. She’s trying to finish a commission overnight while keeping her secret lover Charles from discovering her secret lover Gwynne or her secret ex-lover Scott, who may or may not be involved in a plot to assassinate her secret lover Charles. This is all great, sexy fun, but it’s tinged with mournfulness, for the privations of Puritan era that had just ended in England and the repression that would reassert itself in due time. It’s a dizzying ride, and at a lickety-split 90 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. That’s a blessing. As Aphra Behn would be the first one to tell you, there’s more to life than the theater.
At Round House Theatre to May 7. 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $50–$61. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.