A sex farce for the ages

If they're smoking in a bar, it must be a historical play: Joshua English Scrimshaw and Eric Webster

If they're smoking in a bar, it must be a historical play: Joshua English Scrimshaw and Eric Webster

Hardcover Theater at the Playwrights' Center through June 1;

Nothing says fun like other people's foibles, a fact surely not lost on Giovanni Boccaccio. The 14th-century wordsmith set up 10 characters in a villa hiding out from the Black Death, then had them pass the time by telling stories. An inordinate number of them ended up being about love—erotic and sublime, transcendent and tragic—because, you know, that's where the interesting material lies.

You don't need to know about literature that's more than half a millennium old in order to enjoy Johnny Bocca's Sex Farce for Swingin' Lovers, but it doesn't hurt. Writers Shanan Wexler and Joshua English Scrimshaw adapt five of Boccaccio's tales, turning them into boozy repartee in a New Jersey bar in the 1950s. A loose tone is set from the start, when our titular barkeep (Arnie Roos) saunters in and enjoys a moment of peace before his enraged waitress Gianna (Emily Brooke Hansen) shows up, pissed off about a parking space and ready to chew nails.

Palookas Frankie (Scrimshaw) and Rinny (Eric Webster) come in out of the rain, feebly hit on dishy coat-check girl Kimmy (Amy Schweickhardt), and trade homely bromides with wrung-out barfly Nicky (Tim Uren). John Adler's seedy set is the visual equivalent of a hearty lungful of secondhand smoke and whiskey breath, and the Jersey bonhomie goes bada and bing.

It's light, unassuming stuff, and Wexler directs it with a comic's ear for timing and a nice sense of how to let the piece breathe without turning antic. Soon enough, beleaguered car salesman's wife Lenora (Wexler) blows in, her new Edsel having given up the ghost. After Lenora cries her heart out in the ladies' room, everyone gets sufficiently juiced for the storytelling to begin.

The stories are very good, and acted out by the cast with deft timing. In one, the sexy Ava (Hansen) loves the pugilistic Biff (Webster); the male half of the population can't help but take notice of Ava, and Biff responds by beating the shit out of any guy who dares to catch her eye. Ava meets an interested beau (Uren), whom Biff promises to oblige with a beating, causing Ava to make a vow: Should Biff harm her new suitor, she'll "bang him like French windows in a hurricane."

Well, then. Another story has Rinny (Webster) reminiscing about a gig as a gardener in a Southern finishing school. Seems he pretended to be a deaf-mute and ended up scoring extensively with the abundant low-hanging fruit of young females (in Boccaccio's telling, the story took place at a convent, which demonstrates that thoroughgoing kinkiness is no recent invention). As Rinny fondly remembers, "God damn, that was a good job."

The stories start to pile up like cigarette butts and empty tonic bottles. Schweickhardt narrates a weird beatnik fantasy that revolves around the transposition of the word "art" for "ardent sex," and Roos lays out a story of romantic humiliation that results in a comeuppance dependent on the shaggy boorishness of his present company. After the intermission, Hansen relays a tale about her cousin Sophia (Wexler), a would-be nightclub singer who enthusiastically belts out a tune about her promise to provide her love with an "apple and a plum, and gonorrhea, too!"

Have I mentioned before now that this stuff is all about sex and booze? Eventually we get the point (such as it is): The bawdiness of human life cuts across time (pile on however many hundreds of years you like, it's still all about horniness and a stiff drink). Eventually we arrive at closing time, there's no getting around it, and Lenora finally goes home while Nicky completes the day with his customary crash landing onto the floor. If there's a criticism here, it's that the play never digs deeper than the lascivious and the sodden. But that's like pointing out that a duck has webbed feet, or that a human being is a collection of desires either satisfied or not. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with the obvious.