Theater archives

Old Home Weak


“Men die and they are not happy.” That’s the trouble with the world, as summed up by Camus’s Caligula. I think he got the order of events wrong, but otherwise the line rings true. I, for instance, went to the theater several times this week, and was unhappy there for a good many minutes. And yet I always thought the theater was created to make people happier. Nor am I setting myself against the tide: At various points, I observed a great many people around me being equally unhappy, in ways the perpetrators didn’t intend. No one has the right, of course, to guess at artists’ intentions; but part of this week’s misery has come from their being all too obvious, thumped at the audience with all the subtlety and wrongheadedness of a Giuliani police force. Believe me, you don’t want your attention arrested there.

You wouldn’t want, for instance, to see Shaw’s Arms and the Man if the director’s intention was to make it funny. Why bother when it’s funny to start with? But maybe that wasn’t Roger Rees’s intention: The strain, shouting, joke punching, and general cutesiness onstage suggest a conscious effort to re-create the style of third-rate British regional rep, circa 1930. No sane director would strive for that, you may think, but what other explanation could there be for asking a good African American actor, playing a Bulgarian servant in a New York production, to use a Cockney accent? To give Michael Potts full credit, he clings to this curiosity while everyone else breezily lets their put-on accents come and go, but it should never have been requested in the first place.

This is Shaw’s least English play, initially a flop in London and a huge success over here. A satire on romantic attitudinizing, written in the shadow of the late 19th century’s Realist movement, its humor is largely of the wry, balloon-deflating kind—one of the main reasons Shaw objected to its bastardization into a Viennese operetta, to which he never legally consented. (When MGM finally filmed The Chocolate Soldier, they rebuilt the score to fit Molnar’s The Guardsman.) The setting for the disillusionment of the play’s youthful idealists is a war in the Balkans. Sound familiar? You’d think, after a decade of massacres and atrocities, that the phrase “Serbian army” would suggest more than simpering poses to any director—especially since Shaw rebutted the play’s first reviews in an essay titled “A Dramatic Realist to His Critics.” He got many of his details from his anarchist friend, Sergius Stepniak, who had served as a Russian military “adviser” in Bulgaria, giving his principal romantic sap Stepniak’s first name as a thank-you joke.

Even actively hostile direction couldn’t keep Shaw from getting laughs, and Rees’s is merely misguided, trying to put up a comic lean-to on ground where the playwright’s already erected a sturdy mansion of wit. Two performers manage to fight their way through his muslin tarpaulins into Shaw’s great hall: Henry Czerny, though dour and overly jittery, catches Bluntschli’s plainspoken hardheadedness, and is clearly too sensible an actor to try adding the character’s sparkly sense of mischief, with everyone else shrieking and twitching around him. Tom Bloom, a gruff, roistering Major Petkoff, not only makes these stock traits seem fresh and individual, but conveys the old soldier’s loudness artistically, without shouting the house down. Two other actors achieve what might be called half-escapes: Potts, too young and saddled with too many directorial obstacles, at least seems to know what the smug butler Nicola is about; and Sandra Shipley’s Mrs. Petkoff is excellent whenever she forgets that she has, I infer, been instructed to play the lady of the house as a shrewish vegetable peddler. The rest are almost too painful to discuss: Someone should explain to the Roundabout, slowly and loudly, that Katie Finneran’s voice cannot cope with long Shavian speeches; that Paul Michael Valley will never supplant Woody Allen in neurasthenic comedy (not that there is any in the role of Sergius); and that Robin Weigert will be a Bulgarian servant girl when George W. Bush makes me his sole heir. Kay Voyce’s costumes are pretty—maybe too much so—and Neil Patel’s set hinders the action slightly, though the map of Bulgaria with which it wallpapers the Petkoff home does tell you where the major battles are being fought.

Which is, I suppose, also one of the few things that can be said in favor of Polly Teale’s stage version of Jane Eyre, for the British company Shared Experience. Does anyone mind, to start with, if I find the novel itself a big yawn? I prefer my female sentimental fantasies punctured by Jane Austen—she skewered this one, well before it was written, in Northanger Abbey—just as I prefer my male heroic fantasies when Bernard Shaw is letting out their hot air. Charlotte Brontë’s creative achievement was simply to recycle the tropes of the Gothic novel, as practiced half a century earlier by Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe, putting them into a commercial form suitable to an age of mass production, thus spawning 150 years of—not women’s writing, but lady-writing, which reached a logical, if loathsome, culmination in the Harlequin romance.

The basic myth involved belongs to an era when women were permitted reading and writing as “ladylike” activities, but not granted the independence of action that could validate them through experience. (Even in Brontë’s own time, some women, like “George Eliot” and “George Sand,” took it anyway.) Meaning to view the myth through a modern feminist prism, Teale exploits a predictable strategy: The mad wife locked up in Mr. Rochester’s attic is the heroine’s Doppelgänger (or more precisely Doppelgängerin), beginning as the naughty second self for whose misbehavior her aunt punishes her in childhood. Extending this English-department notion over three hours of theater produces exactly the diminishing returns you’d expect— especially since, in accordance with the official feminist rules for approaching nonfeminist women’s literature, the principal male figure has to be utterly deromanticized. Or—no doubt—it’s sheer and utter coincidence that Penny Layden is a touching (though pinchily dry) Jane, Harriette Ashcroft an effective madwoman, and Sean Murray’s Rochester a gravelly, emotionally monotone disaster of a performance. His mastiff, growled by Michael Matus, has more subtlety as well as more animation, and those spectators who come back for the second half must be among the very few who have ever hoped Jane Eyre would forget Rochester and marry St. John Rivers, to whom Matus gives a glowing idealist zeal.

Teale is capable of good work when she curbs her heavy hand: Beyond the good points I’ve mentioned, Joan Blackham makes a capable Mrs. Fairfax; Phillip Rham doubles stylishly as cellist and Rochester’s horse; Hannah Miles, though less good in other roles, is a sassy and musical Blanche Ingram. And the climactic fire effect, built of waving sheets and cascading papers, might actually be thrilling at the end of a less laborious event. But the obviousness that dogs—sorry, Mr. Matus—that weighs down the whole thing is of a piece with the crudity and carelessness that are the hallmarks of contemporary British theater: As an instance, the actress who plays Rochester’s ward, Adele, who is supposed to be French, has the worst French pronunciation I have ever heard on the English-speaking stage.