‘Restoration Comedy’: The Bats smash the ‘fourth wall’ (again)

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Yes, theater is “live” but at too many big commercial shows — squeezed into a cramped seat for which you shelled out way too much money — you get the distinct feeling that it doesn’t really matter if you’re there or not.

Broadway’s industrial musicals don’t connect with audiences, they roll right over them.

In downtown Manhattan, at The Flea Theater, director Ed Sylvanas Iskandar is back with one of his up-close-and-personal stagings in which the audience is acknowledged and embraced (sometimes literally) from start to finish.

Iskandar caused a sensation last winter with his five-hour take on Greek myth, “These Seven Sicknesses,” in which the actors served food and drink to the audience during each break.

The show removed all barriers between the audience and the acting company, intensifying the gripping and sometimes upsetting stories that were being told.

The new Iskandar show at the Flea — Amy Freed’s romantic and very sexy “Restoration Comedy” — once again has the actors reaching out to the audience from the moment they enter the snug venue. None of this is done in an obnoxious manner, mind you — the young resident company at Flea (The Bats) seems to have a sixth sense for breaking the fourth wall without going too far.

The acknowledgement of the audience makes sense in practical terms — the performance area is small with no one more than a few rows from the action — so why pretend we aren’t in the same intimate space with the actors?

None of this interaction would mean much if the show itself wasn’t good, and “Restoration Comedy” is terrific — an 18th century tale of wrong romantic pairings that are all righted by the finale, told in a fresh style that mixes period elements with modern touches that connect the material to now.

The Bats play a multitude of characters — wonderfully — during the two acts, but they also sing and dance before the play and in between the acts, making the evening feel like an amazing party where some of the guests get up and put on a great show.

The technical elements of the show are spectacular, from the beautiful set and costume design of Julia Noulin-Merat and Loren Shaw to the rousing choreography by Will Taylor (just for a lark, during the intermission, the cast gives the audience the gift of their terrific take on the Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki”).

Amy Freed’s “Restoration Comedy” doesn’t really qualify as a holiday show, but I can guarantee you won’t attend a better party between now and New Year’s Eve (when the show closes).

For ticket information, visit www.theflea.org

Joe Meyers

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