"A work can come close to Camp, but not make it," Susan Sontag wrote, "because it succeeds." Much of the confusion about defining the camp sensibility is from conflating high camp with low. Low camp's modus operandi is the ironic fetishization of sincere and passionate items of kitsch. High camp, on the other hand, proceeds by means of pastiche and travesty—by warping and reassembling the detritus of forgotten or marginalized cultural forms into textures and spectacles that delight in the extravagance of beautiful failures.
However, all camp depends on theatrically dissolving content into style. Not "mere" style but sheer style. No true camp sensibility would ever disparage style, since camp is an inherently aesthetic outlook on life. A taste, in fact, and one that subverts moral ends to the playful, aesthetic means of perpetual fabulousness, which is perpetually a pose.
Which leads to a question: Is Measure for Pleasure, the new play written by David Grimm now playing at the Public Theater, too good, too knowing, and ultimately too earnest to be camp? On the surface—where genuine camp delights to remain—it would seem to be the very apotheosis of theatrical high camp: a romp through Restoration comedy by way of gay sex farce. There's more leopard print and hot pink brocade, cross-dressing, and dildos sprouting cupid's wings than one can shake a very large (slap) stick at. Plus, a set design (by Alexander Dodge) of rococo columns bedizened with vaginas and phalluses in relief.
But look again, and there is something deeper than just dirty puns and frilly outfits going on. There is a kind of poetry. And I don't mean the smooth alexandrine couplets that are ubiquitous throughout the play. No, the real poetry is in the tenderness of the play's devastating wisdom.
The aptly named Grimm, with help from director Peter Dubois, has conceived of a theater that—like the theaters of Joe Orton, Jean Genet, and Oscar Wilde before him—both is and is not camp. Like his forebears, Grimm offers a drama that recognizes the painful failure of life through the pleasant, if savage, ironies of its own sumptuous theatrical success.
Captain Dick Dashwood (Saxon Palmer) duels with Will Blunt (Michael Stuhlbarg), the servant of Sir Peter Lustforth (Wayne Knight), over Blunt's telling Hermione Goode (Emily Swallow) that Dashwood is a rake. Both, however, are secretly getting serviced from Molly Tawdry (Euan Morton), but only Blunt knows that Molly is a transvestite prostitute rather than Hermione's lady-in-waiting.
The real fun with secret identities begins, though, when Lustforth and Dashwood dress up for their vast ritualistic orgies in the underground cave of the Hellfire Club, based—loosely (what, or who, isn't in this play?)—on an actual 18th-century secret society. Who shows up at the festivities but a masked Lady Vanity Lustforth (Suzanne Bertish) and Hermione's would-be ward, Dame Stickle (Susan Blommaert). The whole comedic charade, of course, ties up into perfectly paired couples that each tie the knot, including one homosexual marriage.
Knight, famous for his role as Newman from Seinfeld, exhibits wonderful comic timing and a flair for bawdy verse. Just as much in abundance as these gifts is his physical skill at screwball high jinks as he cavorts about stage huffing and humping as the old, fat, and lecherous Sir Peter.
Bertish, playing his periwig-wearing and death-pale powdered wife Lady Vanity, has the commanding hauteur to deliver such withering statements as "My life is a Greek tragedy—to be blest with such a face and watch men suffer." The phrase doesn't wither her rivals so much as point out her own desiccated visage, which, in Sir Peter's words, "resembles [his] blue, wrinkled balls."
But it is Euan Morton, playing Molly in her several incarnations, who stands out among this marvelously talented cast. In the guise of a very gay man, he delights with the kind of hyperactive lapdog bitchiness of the echt-homosexual character Jack from Will and Grace. Morton also plays a crotchety country doctor for nearly half the play, as well as the prostitute "Molly," since the nonstop schemes of the plot require him to layer character upon character. Just watching Morton slip into new personas and then teasingly break character for an aside is as delightful as trying on expensive suits at Barney's and Bergdorf Goodman that one can't afford.
Speaking of clothes, "style consultant" B.H. Barry and costume designer Anita Yavich's lavish period dress with subtly updated details affirms Oscar Wilde's camp dictum to live by: "One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
The stylish ironic excess of this production make it a high-camp extravaganza, but the meaningful humanity of Grimm's wit make the play much more than that: high art, as well.