Review: Good Art, Bad Men and Samuel Pepys in ‘17c’

Pepys’s diary entries are bracingly frank, and so is this production, which trades the role of Pepys among several actors, the terrific Ms. Hopkins included. Elizabeth DeMent plays Pepys’s wife, Bess, and when a slow-motion ballet explores the dynamics of their marriage, her Pepys is Aaron Mattocks. Later, when Bess falls passionately and hilariously for her dance instructor, we watch Ms. DeMent writhe across the floor. For Pepys, Bess’s wandering affection is a taste of his own medicine, and he can hardly bear it.

One of the show’s feminist interventions is to imagine Bess beyond her husband’s gaze. Another is its play within a play: snippets of “The Convent of Pleasure” by Margaret Cavendish, a Pepys contemporary railing against the status quo.

Some of the loudest echoes of the present come in a long Pepys monologue delivered by Mr. Lazar with a nauseatingly garden-variety lecherousness. Sitting in an easy chair next to an electric fire, Pepys tells of his lust for his wife’s maid, and his determination to have her. Pepys was in his 30s at the time; the maid was a teenager. The show doesn’t mention that. Your mind will turn to Alabama anyway.

Two Pepys aficionados, played by Kourtney Rutherford and Ms. DeMent, sit to the side of the stage. Bookish annotators, they provide context and commentary on a Pepys website, and quibble comically about petty details. But there’s a bigger, more poignant question, and they argue about that, too: This man they revere did some horrible things. If they see that clearly, do they have to give him up?

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