Of all the 19th-century literary masterpieces crying out for contemporary stage adaptations, Alexandre Dumas’s The Black Tulip isn’t exactly first on anyone’s list. Three Musketeers fans expecting another Dumas adventure should think again. The author’s final novel tells the story of a zealous horticulturist whose ambition to breed the world’s first black tulip gets him framed for treason by a rival in late-17th-century Holland. (Are you still with me?) While not a compulsive page-turner, Dumas’s tale is far more engaging than Mark Giesser’s contemporary sitcom version, whose inferior title, How to Build a Better Tulip, is likely to keep the masses safely at bay. As for the few botanists willing to give the play a shot: One might diagnose the dramatic problem as root rot if it weren’t for the fact that this theatrical plant is as artificial as a Kmart fern.
Not that the production doesn’t have (on paper, anyway) much to recommend it. Beyond the French-classic pedigree, it features Emmy-winning actress Lois Nettleton (an accomplished veteran who deserves a better Off-Broadway return than this) and a set designed by Obie winner John Scheffler (whose impressionistic greenhouse is the single most appealing thing in the show). These resources are essentially wasted, however, under Giesser’s clunky direction, which throws into embarrassing relief the lameness of his writing. (Guinness, in fact, might want to consider sending someone to count the number of dud laugh lines, with wit so feeble that actors frequently fumbled words and looked completely bored while doing so.)
No need to recount the plot when the most interesting thing that occurred on the night I attended (besides the senior-citizen couple who stormed out fulminating at the intermission) was Nettleton’s coughing fit, which required several sips of water from an unobtrusively placed paper cup. Suffice it to say that this attempt at farce revolves around Audrey Braddock, an aging plant academic, whose daughter’s having an affair with Mom’s chief scientific foe, a man trying to genetically engineer the still elusive black tulip. The two professors, it turns out, are pawns in a 400-year competition between their ghostly Dutch ancestors, who colonize parts of their brains at will. There’s a bud of interest in Giesser’s wacky setup, but the playwright’s black thumb prevents the possibility of it blooming.
Nettleton, even operating with a head cold, brings a refreshing dose of realism to the cartoonish Audrey, though her gingerly pacing never allows the comedy to snowball. The rest of the cast struggles to provoke laughs, though the fallow material elicits mostly smirks.