Credit: Liz Lauren

In this breezy, quasi-feminist 2015 historical comedy, based on the unlikely life of the titular 17th-century folk heroine—who, upon her death at age 37, had gone from prostitute to celebrated actress to favored mistress of King Charles II—British playwright Jessica Swale manages to make a two-and-a-half-hour play feel like a sketch.

Her problematic strategy is apparent in the opening minutes, as mouthy Nell, selling oranges in what we’re asked to believe is the theater in which we’re all sitting and where a play has just started, is plucked from the stalls by renowned actor Charles Hart, smitten by her “cheek,” and given a crash course in emotive acting. It’s a charming scene, especially given Scarlett Strallen’s unfailingly sparkling performance as Nell, but it makes little sense. What happened to the play we were watching? Are we in the theater anymore? And more critically, since Nell expresses no interest in becoming an actress, why is she bothering?

The reason is simple: dramatic necessity. Nell’s decision to tread the boards sets everything in motion, so Swale forces the moment to happen, as she does most everything else that ensues. As a result, every plot crux—the radical move to include a woman in a professional theater company, the dilemma of choosing between devoted lovers, even the goddamn dissolution of Parliament—resolves expediently rather than consequentially. Despite a strong cast, lavish design, and boisterous musical numbers, director Christopher Luscombe can’t make the evening matter.   v