More than a century before Wall Street’s current debacles of greed, the dark canyons of the financial district provided Melville with grist for his moral imagination and produced the immortal Bartleby.
This enigmatic law clerk confounds his employer, a prosperous chancery lawyer, by declining to do any work or leave his premises, always with the same polite explanation: “I would prefer not to.”
In R.L. Lane’s faithful adaptation of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” we hear the great Melvillean cadences and wit roll from the tongues of the jolly, self-satisfied attorney and his wonderfully eccentric copyists. Alessandro Fabrizi’s economical staging bristles with period detail. On his sparsely furnished stage, designer Harry Feiner’s murky, latticed windows and bleakly evocative lighting suggest the claustrophobic office where the scriveners endlessly scribble. Costume designer Dennis Ballard has decked them out in coats and cravats to match their motley temperaments, and sound designer David Margolin Lawson punctuates their warren’s gloomy silences with church bells, plaintive violin chords, and the scratch of quills on paper.
But capturing the essence of “Bartleby” requires more. The story’s power emerges from the attorney’s inner turmoil. Why does Bartleby wreak such havoc on his psyche? He is a “safe” man, we are told, who believes “the easiest way of life is the best.” Melville portrays him as a complex mix: confident, parsimonious, conventional, and cut off from all deep feeling—until the mild and forlorn Bartleby pierces his emotional insulation.
These subtleties of character are diluted in the script, opening a gap for director and actor to inform. With his sonorous voice and imposing presence, Obie winner Gerry Bamman nearly nails the character. By turns convivial and anguished, he blusters, reasons, and prays but still does not reveal the man’s depth. Fabrizi’s broad direction wins laughs, though, especially with the interplay between employer and his comic grotesques: Sterling Coyne’s obstreperous and histrionic Turkey; Brian Linden’s jittery, dyspeptic Nippers; and Hunter Gilmore’s sweet, unexpectedly touching Ginger Nut. As for Bartleby, Marco Quaglia plays him with corpse-like stillness and the empty eyes of a lost soul.
Yet this Bartleby doesn’t pose the larger questions that make this so haunting a fable. Does Bartleby, this isolated wreck of humanity, represent the hidden miseries of others? Is he a rebel against social convention? A martyr to capitalist greed? Working with so literal an adaptation, Fabrizi might have tapped the resources of theatrical invention to resonate to these wider themes—and you feel their absence. Yet, whatever the production’s limitations, watching these Melville creations strut so vividly onstage is satisfying. The best and worst you can say about this Bartleby is that, like its narrator, it is eminently safe.