When Natacha Roi, playing the real-life Restoration playwright Aphra Behn (1640-89), strides onto the Magic Theatre stage to deliver an elegant prologue that includes the admonishment, “Are all your cell phones off? Yes? Very good” — and ends with the rhyming couplet, “Compose yourselves for pleasure, if you will / Cue the lights, let never time stand still” — there’s absolutely no doubt about it.
“Or” is pure pleasure indeed, and you will wish time could stand still.
Local favorite Liz Duffy Adams — an East Coast playwright who has premiered many of her works in San Francisco, including several post-apocalyptic tales, “The Listener,” “Dog Act” and “The Train Play”) — goes backward here, chronologically speaking, to 17th-century London to create a wonderfully feminist farce involving four historical characters: Behn, the first Englishwoman to write professionally for the theater (best known for “The Rover”) and a spy for King Charles II; the king himself; famed English actress Nell Gwynn; and the wild-eyed double agent William Scott.
Sex, playwriting and politics, in various and hilarious configurations, ensue. This is a gender-bending, mistaken-identities, slamming doors, hiding-in-the-closet, cross-dressing romp of the highest order.
Adams sets the play toward the end of a particularly tumultuous era in England, marked by the plague, the Great Fire and the Dutch Wars. And without resorting to blatant anachronisms, she cleverly references our own era of global conflict.
At the same time, she makes Behn’s single-minded struggle to achieve glory as a playwright both touching and funny.
Under Loretta Greco’s crisp, perfectly modulated direction, the three actors gracefully finesse the script’s every comic, erotic and poignant moment.
As the central figure, Roi is a powerfully focused and seductive Behn, seen first in debtors’ prison, then madly scribbling with a feathery quill at her writing desk at home (the spare, clean set is by Michael Locher). She is a vision in flowing curls and a pale-blue gown with bustle and tightly laced bodice (costumes are by Alex Jaeger).
Playing opposite her with verve is Ben Huber as both the randy king and sly Scott. He seamlessly moves back and forth between the two disparate characters, making each one distinctive.
Particularly impressive amid the top-notch ensemble is Maggie Mason as four completely different characters, including the gamine, foul-mouthed, bisexual Gwynn; Behn’s sour, deadpan lady’s maid; and in one lengthy, brilliant monologue, a chattering aristocrat clomping around on absurdly high platform shoes.
As for the elliptical title — it is just one more little metatheatrical joke in a play full of them.
Presented by the Magic Theatre
Where: Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 5
Tickets: $45 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org