Though set in 1613, "The Herbal Bed" brings to mind, not the 17th century, but the middle of the 20th. Peter Whelan's play, based on an incident in the life of Shakespeare's daughter, started out at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996. It is, though, the kind of solid, decent, somewhat melodramatic play that was much more common 40 years ago.
It is not hard to see why an intelligent playwright would be attracted to the story of Susanna Shakespeare's action for slander against Jack Lane, a young man who went around saying that she had a venereal disease and had slept with a man who was not her husband. The combination of sex, scandal and Shakespeare is too much to resist.
Around the few known facts of the case, Peter Whelan has woven a plausible enough tale. His answer to the question of whether the allegations against Susanna were true is "yes and no".
Trapped in a marriage to a doctor whom she respects but does not love, she burns with desire for a local tradesman. What passes between them is not what Lane says, but neither is what she swears to. Both the accusation and the defense are untrue.
This could make for a subtle and intriguing drama. But "The Herbal Bed" isn't it. It is instead an uncomfortable mixture of a well-made 1950s problem play, and an overwritten, sub-Shakespearean poetic epic. It doesn't have either the emotional depth you might expect in a play about love or the intellectual depth you might hope for in a play about truth.
Nor, alas, does it have a central performance potent enough to overcome these problems. As Susanna, Laila Robins' grand style and distant, rather mannered presence are at odds with the spirited, sensual woman we are told about.
Around her there are solid performances from Tuck Milligan as her husband, Armand Schultz as her would-be lover and Simon Jones as the Puritan who hears the case. But there is nothing in Michael Attenborough's smooth but safe production that demands attention. You can't help noticing that Shakespeare himself stays offstage. So, unfortunately, does any whiff of his turbulent, fantastic spirit.
As the curtain falls on Peter Whelan's "The Herbal Bed," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, the characters on stage are awaiting the imminent arrival of an eminent personage: William Shakespeare.
And though the Bard never makes an appearance in this play, it is his silent presence offstage that gives this splendidly intriguing piece, based on historical fact, a certain special shiver of fascination.
For Whelan has taken the true story of Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna Hall (Laila Robins), and her 1613 suit for slander against Jack Lane (Trent Dawson), who had accused her of having committed adultery and having gonorrhea.
The suit was settled, entirely in Susanna's favor, in the Ecclesiastical Court of Worcester Cathedral, where such matters were often heard. Whelan, however, has added his own touch of dramatic license to an otherwise commonplace case of a wrongful, drunken accusation by a young man with a chip on his shoulder, placed there by his recent dismissal by Susanna's husband, a well-known Stratford physician named John Hall (Tuck Milligan).
Whelan's contribution to the legal mix is to suggest that Susanna was perhaps not quite the pure young matron the bare bones of the matter might maintain.
What, he asks, if although not strictly guilty of adultery with Rafe Smith (Armand Schultz), a married haberdasher and family friend, her legal innocence in the matter was preserved only by a fortuitous interruption when the parties concerned were already partying, naked, embracing and preparing to make an honest man of their accuser?
Moreover, Dr. Hall, who is no fool, rather suspects that matters are not quite so clear-cut as they could be - although he certainly knows that his wife is not suffering from "the running of the reins," as gonorrhea was then called.
Also, both he and his wife are eager that the matter should be rebutted as expeditiously as possible, so that his work of healing should not be imperiled by the scandal.
Everything would have gone smoothly in this classic case of "he said, she said," particularly as Dr. Hall was prepared, after the accuser had withdrawn his accusation, to recommend the young man for another post.
But things - for such is the way of plays as well as life - do not go entirely smoothly. There is a snag in the chilly, prosecutorial avidity of the legal adviser to the presiding bishop, Barnabus Goche (Simon Jones), who is determined to get to the truth of the matter.
The play was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and it later had a successful run in London, where I saw it last year.
It is a first-rate drama with interesting moral issues of truth and expediency. Yet, for the most part, the RSC's production was better.
While, unfortunately, all the laymen - Milligan, Schultz and Dawson - seem a pretty dull lot, the Church comes off well, with Herb Foster as a twinkling Bishop of Worcester and Jones, sanctimonious and menacing, calmly brilliant as the relentless Goche.
Amelia Campbell proves fresh and convincing as the servant girl whose evidence might be vital to Susanna's case, and, as Susanna herself, Robins is a pure delight, with a performance embracing intelligence and grace. If Shakespeare ever had gotten on stage, he would have been proud of her.
''Oh, Susanna Shakespeare, how you did shake!''
That's how a leering young swain describes the daughter of you-know-who in ''The Herbal Bed,'' the cerebral bodice ripper that opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, before she became a boring, respectable married woman. Does the tone of that exclamation sound familiar? It's not quite on a level with ''My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun,'' is it?
Now try out this line: ''You are merry and bright and genial with everyone, but can you love?'' Or how about this one, in which Susanna Hall, nee Shakespeare, describes the frustrations of her limited life as a doctor's wife in Stratford-upon-Avon: ''Knowledge was there for the picking as long as I used a small basket and kept it out of sight. I craved that fruit.''
She can certainly hold a metaphor, that Susanna. Or as another character in Peter Whelan's drama says of her: ''Clever woman, Mistress Hall. Takes after her father, Master Shakespeare. Do you know him?''
Zounds and gadzooks! Methinks I haven't heard such dialogue since Joan Collins played a smoldering lady-in-waiting to Bette Davis's Queen Elizabeth in the movie ''The Virgin Queen.'' If you've been wondering what ever happened to the stilted but steamy period play, which mixes historical debate with a soupcon of soap opera prurience, you have the chance to find out with this American production of Mr. Whelan's drama, originally presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and later a hit in the West End in London.
In fairness to Mr. Whelan, this dialogue may rest more gently on the ear when spoken by a British cast. But the self-consciousness, not to mention the slipping and variable accents, that pervades the performances here is anathema to a play that asks you to accept an ersatz language poised between Elizabethan and contemporary speech.
It doesn't help that the direction by Michael Attenborough, who also staged the English productions, tends to place the actors in oratorical postures: backs straight, chins high, arms either hanging woodenly or clasped at waist level, with the occasional clinched fist for impact. When you see the performers lined up, often in noble, antagonistic profile, in their breeches and bonnets and jerkins, you can understand why some people run for the hills whenever they hear the phrase ''costume drama.''
There are moments, in both the script and the performances, that give off tantalizing sparks of a less artificial life. Mr. Whelan's play, inspired by a charge of defamation filed by the real Susanna Hall in 1613, against a man who accused her of adultery, is by no means mindless.
It considers nothing less than the clash of cultural and religious sensibilities of an England on the edge of civil war and, by implication, the contrasting, reconciling vision of Shakespeare's plays, with their synthesis of opposing elements. And as Susanna, Laila Robins, last seen in New York admirably holding her own against Uta Hagen in ''Mrs. Klein,'' has a naturally charged presence that combines emotional fire with a commanding poise.
Unfortunately, Ms. Robins isn't given much in the way of responsive fuel from her fellow performers. As a consequence, she tends to overcompensate, pumping up her mellifluous voice and drawing herself into grand dramatic stances that bring to mind the age of Katherine Cornell. She remains the best reason to see the production, but the uncomfortable sense of struggle that washes through the evening claims her performance, too.
''The Herbal Bed'' belongs to the relatively recent tradition of the speculative drama that embroiders on skeletal historical fact. Tom Stoppard, in plays like ''Travesties,'' represents the highbrow, and most elaborately whimsical end of the genre. Mr. Whelan's work is closer to the popularizing spirit of Peter Shaffer's ''Amadeus'' and Nicholas Wright's ''Mrs. Klein.'' Like them, it is exceedingly talky. Unlike them, it is short on compelling theatrical flash, despite an erotic love scene, which features partial nudity, and a climactic interrogation scene that places the play's principals under the moral scrutiny of the Church of England.
The source of the play's conflicts is the conflicted nature of its heroine, Susanna, who, as one of her admirers notes, has a ''seesaw'' temperament. The gracious and efficient wife of John Hall (Tuck Milligan), the town physician, Susanna has longings beyond her prescribed social role, both professional and romantic. She's a whiz at whipping up herbal remedies from her lush garden (the very green set is by David Jenkins), but pines for those moments when ''I'm myself and not Jack's wife.''
Though she virtuously counsels the hunky, unhappily married Rafe Smith (Armand Schultz), the local haberdasher, to learn to get along with his wife, when the moon is high and the doctor is away and Rafe comes a calling, Susanna takes him into her arms. As she says of what she calls ''love's alchemy,'' in ''that furnace, everything changes.''
This particular chemistry lesson is aborted, unfortunately, when the drunken fop Jack Lane (Trent Dawson), who has reason to resent Susanna, shows up. Though he has seen nothing incriminating, Jack spreads the word that Susanna is an adulteress. As Susanna, John and Rafe, along with the Halls' devoted servant, Hester (Amelia Campbell), ponder how to deal with this, the shifting nature of truth, love and honor is brought under earnest consideration.
The first act in particular has a marked feminist tinge, considering the frustrations of being an ambitious and intelligent woman in Tudor-Stuart England in ways that vaguely recall Virginia Woolf's ruminations on Shakespeare's imaginary sister in ''A Room of One's Own.'' There is also considerable time devoted to describing period medical practices and herbal cures, as well as a smattering of pop-psychological insight. (''There are men, Hester,'' Susanna tells her maid, ''who suffer as much from what's inside them as what happens to them.'') The first act, in short, is not easy to sit through.
The second act takes on a bit more momentum. It's fun to see Susanna emerge as a cool liar who finds virtue in deception and easily stands up to the self-righteous Puritan vicar (the reliable Simon Jones) who investigates her suit against Jack. There's at least the hint of a theatrical crackle in the interrogation scene, set in a cathedral where everyone's voice echoes, and Ms. Campbell, who has given a strained performance up to this point, delivers the plot's one real surprise quite engagingly.
The emotional payoff is minimal, however, because you've never believed, as you have to, in the play's central relationships. This is partly because the performers seem to have arrived from different acting schools, if not different planets. The oddest of the lot is Mr. Dawson, who wears a cunning ponytail, a stubble of a beard and an unlaced, chest-exposing shirt and behaves like one of those trouble-making swingers from ''Melrose Place.''
But no one comes across as persuasively human here, and the drama's ambitious spectrum of ideas is never really assimilated into the performance. ''The Herbal Bed'' ends with the impending arrival of Susanna's father, who is seriously ill. One hopes, however, that he is well enough to do some play doctoring.
A bodice-ripping melodrama festooned with a thin veneer of historical (and, yes, herbaceous) authenticity, Peter Whelan's "The Herbal Bed" is an odd bet for Broadway, but its arrival here can probably be explained by the current general mania for all things English. In a production that matches the play for earnestness and obviousness, this "Bed" looks rather antique.
The play originated at the Royal Shakespeare Co.'s Stratford-upon-Avon site, where proximity to the locale of the doings it details may have given it an allure that's now absent. The heroine is Shakespeare's daughter Susanna (Laila Robins), and the play was inspired by an intriguing incident in her history, a charge of defamation she brought against a man named John Lane, who had publicly accused her of adultery.
Whelan elaborates upon the minimal details known about the case in a manner that would warm the heart of a romance novelist. His Susanna is, at first appearance, happily married to Dr. John Hall (Tuck Milligan), whom she steadfastly aids in dispensing herbal concoctions culled from their carefully tended back garden, where most of the play's action takes place. When she's not dispensing medicine, she's free with advice to the lovelorn, namely her husband's randy young apprentice Lane (Trent Dawson), who harries her with teasing allusions to a previous flirtation between them, and the brooding fabric-seller Rafe Smith (Armand Schultz), whose admiration for Susanna is tinged with guilt over betrayal of his ailing and possibly mad wife.
When the good doctor is called away to tend a patient, things between Susanna and Rafe heat up quickly, and by the end of the first act, they're locked in a passionate embrace that looks uncomfortably like the cover of a paperback brought to vivid life: He in big boots and bare chest, she in frilly white nightgown and flowing locks, urging him on with talk of "love's alchemy" (and there's a title for you). The effect is little mitigated by David Jenkins' scenery, which could use a little more imagination and a lot less green paint.
Imagination is also lacking in Michael Attenborough's stolid staging, and things only get worse in the second act, as various confrontations ensue when it's revealed that Lane witnessed enough of Susanna and Rafe's encounter --- aborted though it was by loyal servant Hester's sudden arrival --- to tell tales about it over one pint too many.
The scandalized Dr. John demands a public retraction, about the wording of which there is much talk. Rafe enters from stage left to tangle with the nefarious Lane, resulting in some fisticuffs and more talk, before things finish in an endlessly protracted scene with the investigating Vicar-General, in which there is much, much too much talk.
As the conflicted lover Smith, Schultz is lacking in magnetism, although he isn't given a lot to do other than brood and stomp around in his boots. Dawson's English accent is somewhat wayward, but then so is his character. In fact Milligan's Dr. Hall is the most appealing --- and capably acted --- man onstage, rendering Susanna's dissatisfaction perplexing (although Milligan, too, has his overripe moments).
Robins, a lovely actress who was terrific in the Los Angeles production of David Hare's "Skylight," can't do much with a character who cannot open her mouth without a torrent of variously impassioned, noble or wise-beyond-her-epoch speech issuing forth, too often delivered with a wistful peer into the (presumably verdant) distance. (Susanna apparently inherited her father's gift for gab without his artistic genius.)
Whelan lards his story with arcana both historical and medical, making this a safe bet to be the only Broadway play in which the 17th-century treatment for gonorrhea is likely to figure prominently, for example, but it's mostly quaint window dressing on a familiar tale of forbidden love and retribution, one that would need the genius of a Bard to make it green again.