A review of “Stage Beauty” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for sexual situations and nudity

Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

 

 

The English Restoration shines every bit the star in this gender-bender of a love story.

Billy Crudup sizzles as Edward Kynaston, the most beautiful “woman” on the English stage circa 1661.  Seventeenth century theater was a male-dominated arena; a men-only club when it came to public performance.

At the urging of his cheeky mistress Nell Gwyn (Zoë Tapper), the flamboyant and fun-loving King Charles II (Rupert Everett) switches gears in a fit of royal pique and commands that the stage be henceforth an equal opportunity craft.

Raised to be theatrically female, Kynaston’s career hits the skids. Something akin to the advent of talkies for silent film stars.  His trademark role of Othello’s Desdemona is unceremoniously snatched away from him and bestowed onto a real flesh-and-blood actress.  

Kynaston’s dutiful dresser Maria (Claire Danes) comes to the rescue. Giddy from the smashing response to her own stage debut, her deep feelings for Kynaston nonetheless embolden her to persuade him to reinvent himself for the male roles that are up for grabs.

Flawed but fascinating, Stage Beauty is a handsome kaleidoscope of adult-themed pleasures.  Pacing has trouble finding its footing and is dodgy throughout, and the occasional scene falls curiously flat.  But the hedonistic backstabbing, garish gowns and grease-paint, and dandy court of Charles II, a decadent affair of voluptuous melodramatics and effeminate airs, manage to compensate for the tempo problems.

Final act is an Oscar-worthy Shakespearean salvo, with rival lovers Maria and Kynaston enacting Othello’s infamous death scene with palpable heat. Crudup and Danes reportedly fell in love while filming this edgy bard valentine and it shows.  Their chemistry is hot; tangibly sexy and coursing with prurient energy.  

Crudup is extraordinary as the insecure thesp trapped in a doozy of an identity crisis, and his co-stars match him play for play.  Everett chews up the scenery as the foppish Charles, Ben Chaplin is delicious bisexual evil as Kynaston’s patron George Villiars, Duke of Buckingham, and Danes proves yet again that she’s a talent to be reckoned with.