Among his many other gifts, Charles Dickens was great at giving the minor characters in his novels “telling” names, like Flite and Smallweed. What sort of character, I wonder, would he have named “Simon Callow”? A person of strangely mixed qualities, presumably, one engaged in a slick and shady trade like simony, yet still startlingly naive (“callow”). Well, the real Simon Callow proves the validity of Dickens’s method. His new solo piece, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, is indeed both slick and jejune, scattering flashy tidbits of both author and actor in every direction without giving a satisfactory helping of either.
It would be interesting to see Callow, who is making his New York stage debut, act a role, but the script, more illustrated lecture than play, doesn’t offer him one. It might be gratifying to hear him read scene-length excerpts from Dickens as Emlyn Williams used to do so memorably, but our frenetic age has no time for that. The best Callow can offer is a succession of Dickensbites, jammed into the jumpy narration as in those cheesy PBS documentaries, where the rare archival material that you tuned in to see is always buried under the obnoxious voice-over explanations, most of which turn out to be either incomplete or misleading.
This approach, sadly, robs Callow, with his ringing articulation and obvious relish for plummy characterizing, of the chance to display both his own best wares and his author’s. Dickens wrote in bulk, and is most enjoyable that way. As Eric Bentley said, defending Williams’s lengthier selections, “You wouldn’t offer a friend a thimbleful of beer.” Aside from not quenching the patron’s thirst, such an act makes the server look stingy. And the stage, which Dickens dearly loved and with which his books are saturated, is no place to be ungenerous.
Peter Ackroyd’s text, while acknowledging Dickens’s love of the theater, asserts that he never went into it professionally because “he knew he had something greater within him.” This unconvincing piece of guff is a polite evasion: Dickens never went into the theater because it wasn’t socially respectable. Like Shakespeare, he wanted above all else to be a gentleman, and when he got rich, he went back to the area where he had grown up and bought its most expensive house to live in. Dickens’s grandparents had served the aristocracy; his father, by going into trade and failing, had brought the family down. Much of Dickens’s writing can be seen as a protracted attempt to understand and forgive his father. His mother, who had abetted the trauma by allowing the 12-year-old Dickens to be put to work in the warehouse of a shoe polish (“blacking”) factory, he apparently never forgave, transferring his repressed resentment of her to his blandly maternal wife, whom he betrayed and vilified in print.
Ackroyd touches on many of these points, which Callow plays to the hilt, but surprisingly misses their dramatic sense. We never learn that Dickens concealed the blacking-warehouse episode for most of his adult life. (The truth only came out when he unexpectedly spoke the factory’s address, to his family’s astonishment, while playing a party game.) But focal points are similarly missed all over the place; it happens when you reduce a complex life to tidbits. We hear about the public’s emotional frenzy over the death of Little Nell, and Ackroyd supplies Wilde’s famous quip on the subject, but Callow quotes only the postlude, not the death scene that set two continents weeping. Similarly, Ackroyd tells us that someone (unidentified) dismissed Little Dorrit as “twaddle,” but doesn’t add that Dickens’s later novels, with their broader critique of English society, were even in his lifetime starting to loom larger than the slapstick discomfitures of Mr. Pickwick.
Ironically, the script’s intervening narration fails most at what it was most intended to do: display Callow’s gifts by giving him a platform from which to escape into many Dickensian roles. It would have been far simpler for him to have played the roles fully and let Dickens’s own narration supply the base. When Callow tackles a scene of any length, he proves he’d be worth seeing in a real Dickens evening. We get samples of Pip meeting Miss Havisham, Squeers bullying pupils, and that recurring obsession of Dickens’s own solo readings, the murder of Nancy. But to anyone who knows the joy of Dickens read aloud, this is a very small thimbleful; the rest is mostly half-truths and carbonation. And the first thing Callow should omit is the set, apparently a picture-frame shop kept by the giantess from Into the Woods.
At that, it’s better than Tim Hatley’s sets for Private Lives, of which the first suggests a pseudo-Deco Marriott St. Tropez, while the second seemingly heralds the opening of a Prairie School studio in Paris. Howard Davies’s production is full of similarly bold steps in wrong directions. Emma Fielding and Adam Godley, in the two supporting roles, have been given one note each to harp on. He’s bearable, but her performance—the first time I’ve ever heard an English actress strive to affect an English accent—is a prolonged strenuous whine.
For Private Lives, though, these are all peripheral matters, easily waved away if the two leading actors can entangle us in the fun of watching Elyot and Amanda fall back into their traumatically bipolar relationship, and then hilariously claw their way out again. Davies, whose previous Broadway productions have ranged in quality from mediocrity to humiliating disaster, is near the high end of his dismal spectrum here. The pacing is sometimes languid to the point of somnambulism, and the spatting has had most of its fun removed. His notion of what Elyot should sing to Amanda during their romantic idyll is “If Love Were All,” the wistful credo of a cabaret artist who’s given up hope of settling down—maybe not the best choice for crooning to someone with whom you’ve just restarted an old love affair.
But even Davies’s dull hand could be sloughed off with lead actors of sufficient sparkle, and here Private Lives scores in the 70 to 75 percent range, not bad as contemporary Coward revivals go. Lindsay Duncan, who can apparently do nothing false onstage, is always on the mark, whether Amanda’s vulnerably perplexed, tart and brittle, or lying with wide-eyed ease. Alan Rickman, opposite her, can at least always appear to be equally true. If he doesn’t always convince (watch his eyes when he declares his love in Act I), he compensates with a fuller sense of fun than Duncan, catching the role’s many instant put-ons and riding them gleefully. The only trouble is that they’re in different productions. Amanda and Elyot love each other, but they also can’t stand each other; that’s the central, fundamentally tragic, joke on which the action hinges. But Duncan’s Amanda and Rickman’s Elyot never add up to a couple: Nuzzling on a couch, they seem every bit as incompatible as when they’re flinging pillows and lamps at each other. Whatever the explanation, the fizz is lacking. They might borrow some of Callow’s excess, but it would probably evanesce on its way over from the Belasco.
Let’s end with a good American joke. You hear the one about the cop and the hooker? It seems that while he was entrapping her in the massage parlor, they found out the high schools they went to were big athletic rivals. So he says, “Your team always kicked our ass,” and she, not to be outdone, replies, “Yeah, but our cheerleaders were cows.” I know it’s not funny, but if you believe it, you might believe the rest of Rebecca Gilman’s Blue Surge, and that would be funny, since it has more contrivances and improbabilities per square inch than any six Dickens novels. Gilman means to explore something interesting about sex and social class, and the ways people can and can’t help each other, but she insists on using weirdness for characterization, and patness for every dramatic climax. It’s not enough for her cop to be a low-income kid who resents his girlfriend’s affluence; he has to have had a grave robber for a father, and a mother who was bedridden but kept five dogs. While the arcana weaken the play’s common sense, the plot—two teamed cops both fall for whores they’re busting—makes it seem cheap and glib. A pity, because Gilman’s Boy Gets Girl was admirable precisely for its unfussy straightforwardness in using both the improbabilities life throws at us and the taut structure of a suspense thriller. Heightening the frustration, Robert Falls’s production of Blue Surge, cast mainly with Chicago imports, is clean, unforced, and near-perfect in its acting. Joe Murphy as the tormented flatfoot and Colleen Werthmann as the more party-loving prostitute are especially effective.