Don Juan, the world's most famous lover, as a bit of a nerd, a sexual innocent interested only in the life of the mind and high-tone eternal truths?
Well, that's just the beginning of "Don Juan in Chicago," a blissfully funny farce filled by author David Ives with wordplay, swordplay and, of course, foreplay.
The playwright transforms a familiar tale of lust into an inventive, high-flying comic meditation on love. It's filled with popular and classical cultural references, rhyming dialogue, remarkable coincidences, silly sight gags and more than a few puns, both good and awful.
Yet it has heart as well as humor, and its generous ending turns the usual comeuppance for Don Juan -- particularly when told in the Mozart opera "Don Giovanni" -- on its head.
The play, which opened Wednesday at off-Broadway's Primary Stages, spans four centuries, from the Don's palace in Seville in 1599 to an apartment on Chicago's South Side in 1995 and finally into what Ives calls "Eternity."
The Don starts out as neophyte in the bedroom, but he is a quick study -- especially after making a pact with the devil to insure his immortality. Mephistopheles concocts a deal with an enticing price tag: in order to live forever, Don Juan has to sleep with a different woman every day.
The conditions are more exhausting than the Don initially realizes, and they upset Dona Elvira, the one true love of his life. The woman, unceremoniously dumped after their first tryst, strikes her own deal with the Prince of Darkness. She can live until she gets Don Juan into bed again.
Act 2 finds our hero -- now known as Don Johnson -- in present-day Chicago, relentlessly trying to find a likely prospect for the night. His target is a compulsively neurotic woman with a secret or two in her past.
Ives' loony dialogue flies by furiously under the expert guidance of director Robert Stanton, who never lets things spin out of control. The characters' conversations are remarkably dense, but an accomplished cast handles them with skill.
An un-Latin Simon Brooking is an atypical but appealing Don Juan. He's terrific, not only because his desperation is funny, but because it is touching, too. The honey-voiced J. Smith-Cameron turns Dona Elvira into a sexy, saucy woman whose pining for Don Juan also generates sympathy.
A wonderfully gruff Larry Block is a tough-talking Leporello, the Don's faithful and never-aging sidekick. A campy Peter Bartlett, sporting the teeniest of horns, makes a marvelous Mephistopheles, while Nancy Opel, T. Scott Cunningham, Dina Spybey and Mark Setlock jump on the playwright's merry-go-round without missing a beat.
Ives scored off-Broadway more than a year ago with "All in the Timing," a collection of short plays that is still running there.
"Don Juan in Chicago" demonstrates that Ives can handle a full, three-act play quite nicely. More than just nicely. He has created a first-rate, literate comedy with lunacy to spare.