Broadway playgoers, unite. Throw away your overpriced tickets and head downtown to the Irish Rep; you have nothing to lose but your boredom. Next to the shabby, ugly, dreary procession of Uptown diversions, the works of Dionysius Lardner Boucicault, once reviled as the 19th century’s trashiest playwright, are like triumphs of openhearted elegance, as well as genuine popular entertainments. Nobody knows what year Boucicault was born (circa 1820), and it’s widely assumed that his father was not his mother’s husband; he churned out some 250 plays before his death in 1890. Equally well known as an actor, he loved writing plays set in Ireland, in which he gave himself the role of an extravagating, cunning, low-comic rogue, like Conn O’Kelly in The Shaughraun, currently visible on 22nd Street in a zesty, pocket-sized revival.
Boucicault’s Irish works have a special appeal as well as a special place in history. He was not the first to exploit Irish stereotypes on the stage, but he was the first to modify and deepen them with something like authenticity. However much hokum he pours into his comedy-streaked melodramas, his feeling for Ireland, its people, and their situation remains a true thing. If this seems a small victory, bear in mind that in his time the Irish were widely viewed as a not quite human laboring class, blessed by their nearness to animal nature with an innate musicality and a gift for broad clowning closely linked to their shiftlessness, lying, and violence. By rearranging the values within this stereotype, Boucicault paved the way for both the Anglicized high comedy of Wilde and Shaw and the poetic realism of Synge and O’Casey.
With the possible exception of Shaw, though, none of the four would have chosen him as an aesthetic ancestor; the thrills that make money were his only artistic goal. “Sensation is what audiences want,” he said, “and you can never give them enough of it.” Pitting the good-natured layabout Conn against a web of crooked magistrates, police informers, redcoats on the hunt for “Fenians,” escaped convicts back from Australia, and his own obstreperous mother, The Shaughraun (say chagrin with an -awn at the end) is nearly a sensation a minute: jailbreaks, disguises, kidnapped virgins, purloined pardons, fatal shootings of men who turn out not to be dead, and a final fall from a cliff. All this to get two couples united and the heirs restored to the manor house, so that Conn can go on poaching his merry way through their demesne.
Like today’s media mills, the 19th-century theater was full of hacks grinding out such stuff. Boucicault stands miles above them because he knew how to texture his material, how to space the thrills, spice them with new flavors, leaven them with irony and humor. His works don’t have the monolithic numbskull quality that gives melodrama a bad name; the shifting tone keeps turning them into other kinds of plays, opening vistas onto other worlds of thought. The scene of the escaped convict’s arrest in The Shaughraun is a classic instance of his methods: The young man is hiding in the priest’s cottage; the British officer pursuing him, who is in love with his sister, offers not to search the cottage if the priest will give his word of honor that the boy isn’t there. Both priest and officer are in agony, and so are we; we don’t want to see the one lie, or the other fail in his duty. The tension is sublime. And there are no overt villains, no overwrought posturings; it’s melodrama as civilization.
If Charlotte Moore’s production doesn’t give Boucicault all the finesse he deserves, it’s nonetheless a kind of small miracle. On an ingenious pivoting set, by Klara Zieglerova, that toys wittily with perspectives and conventions, Moore deploys a cast of 14 with minimal traffic snarls and a lot of inventive problem solving. Letting her actors march down the aisles, clamber up the flats, and open Dutch doors in the painted landscapes, she brings off a multi-set play that calls for everything from a prison cell to a ruined abbey by moonlight. The show is fast on its feet, and the audience follows its twists and turns with enthusiasm.
Even more of a surprise, given the cast size, is the overall quality of the performance. I don’t mean that it’s brilliantly acted— except in two cases— but that the general level is just far enough above competence to keep the action moving and put no obstacles in its way. The two superb exceptions are Daniel Gerroll’s English officer, a comic masterpiece of flummoxed dignity, in the classic Ealing Studiosstyle, and Patrick Fitzgerald’s darkly mischievous Conn. The latter’s almost too somber at first, but brightens steadily, reaching a hilarious peak in the climactic funeral scene— where, with typically Boucicaultian paradox, the role’s big laughs are located. “Turn the funeral into a wedding,” the British officer says crisply. “I really don’t see you Irish make much distinction.” To which his new bride replies, “I believe that in England the wedding often turns out the more melancholy occasion.” That good sample of Boucicault’s skill at word-slinging reminds me that Lucinda Faraldo makes an appealingly feisty sparring partner for Gerroll, while Ciaran O’Reilly, the Rep’s producing director, cuts a juicily creepy figure as the informer. If he downplays the character’s lashings of guilt, maybe he’s just too proud of the show to feel any. I can’t say I blame him.
This article was meant to discuss picaresque drama; I was going to show that, structurally, Pericles and Little Me are the same play. But pleasure in
theatergoing always gets pride of place, and the element both shows share most strongly is that there’s really not much pleasure in sitting through them.
Pericles suffers from mixed intentions:
Brian Kulick’s direction seems to aim for the bare-stage simplicity of village storytelling, while Mark Wendland’s huge, multilevel set suggests a giant mechanized image for the destiny that kicks the hapless hero from port to port.
Periodically, chunks of this structure get dismantled and wheeled about on casters. It’s nice to see casters that work at the Public— the ones in the casting
office seem to have lost their (ball) bearings. Jay Goede, an amiably handsome youngster, is as bland a Pericles as you can imagine, with all the inner conviction of a shirt ad. The actors around him are alternately so
miscast or so misdirected that even the most gifted come off like duffers. Most of the speaking is acceptable (the Gower, ironically, is worst of the lot in voice and metrics) and the cast inevitably brings off a
few strong moments, but the muddle onstage renders any view of the play unreadable— and I don’t mean in the poststructuralist sense.
Little Me is all about structure— in the cantilevered sense of what holds up a strapless evening gown. Belle Poitrine, naively bringing death as she lurches from lecher to lecher, trying to keep their grabby hands off, is a coarse parody of the usual picaresque innocent, in Neil Simon’s crudely carpentered stage version of Patrick Dennis’s crass book. Back in 1963, it worked for the critics (including college-age little me) because of Sid Caesar, the lively Coleman-Leigh score, Bob Fosse’s spiffy dances, and quality items of a sort one used to take for granted in Broadway musicals, like a lovable supporting cast and stylishly bright-colored designs.
Well, we’ve changed all that, and not for the better. Rob Marshall’s revival of Little Me is unwatchably and unlistenably up to date. David Gallo’s big white ashtray of a set, repeatedly drenched in yucky pink light by Kenneth Posner, suggests a sweet 16 party in hell, while David Chase’s unsympathetically blatting band is about competent to play for one. Martin Short, cast as all the men in Belle’s life, once or twice grasps a character firmly enough to give the show some humanity, but Marshall’s staging is always there to drag it back down by underlining the cheap jokes that we got 10 minutes earlier. Faith Prince, earnest and energetic, lacks the magic to rise out of this quagmire. I can’t discuss topics like choreography or sound design; libel laws aside, I don’t have enough space to be that mean.