Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

The Alchemist
By Ben Jonson
theater directors, Ben Jonson is the toughest nut to crack in the English Renaissance.
Of all the major dramatists, he poses the severest tests of imagination and
reimagination–particularly in America, where Volpone is the only
one of his great satiric comedies to be performed with any frequency (probably
because it’s the only one with easily recognizable star roles).

All the other major playwrights
of the age offer obvious points of immediate theatrical access that still function
today. Shakespeare (apart from his greatness and sheer familiarity to us) has
the evocative phrase, for instance, Marlowe his mighty iambic line and monumentally
overreaching heroes, Tourneur and Webster their luridly sinister atmospheres.
Jonson, for his part, once had the thrill of intimate recognition due to his
flood of local details. The first question for any contemporary director of
Bartholomew Fair, Epicoene, Volpone or The Alchemist
must be: what can replace that?

Barry Edelstein does have
an answer in his production of The Alchemist at Classic Stage Co., but
for a long time it seems like he doesn’t. With its merrily anachronistic
set by Adrianne Lobel (a busy, two-level basement workshop with numerous criss-crossing
pipes, a periodic table of elements, a NYNEX phone book in a pile of old tomes
and a refrigerator and stereo system beside alchemical equipment), the show
announces itself immediately as an unfortunate string of desperate postmodern
gasps after connectedness. What happens, however, is that the acting is so strong,
particularly in the lead roles, that the spectacle of the performers’ spontaneous
and ingenious invention eventually takes over as the exuberant center of the

The play is about a trio
of con artists–two men and a woman–who occupy a house in London to
run scams when the owner is out of town. Subtle poses as a sagacious alchemist
on the brink of discovering the philosopher’s stone, and Face (originally
a servant in the house) and Dol Common play a colorful assortment of supporting
roles to help cozen an even more colorful assortment of gulls. One by one the
gulls show up, parade their ridiculous excesses (greed, lust, social ambition,
etc.) and are separated from their money. Trouble arises when they run into
one another in unplanned combinations and a skeptical acquaintance hatches a
plot to expose the trio.

It’s certainly possible
to draw juicy parallels between Jonson’s alchemy hoax and any number of
self-deceits practiced today. The satire still bites, albeit blunted by the
loss of Jonson’s recognizable urban types. The main problem with this production
is that the hybrid quasi-modern types that Edelstein substitutes are mostly
murky and confusing: scruffy-haired men in squarish skullcaps and expensive-looking
Hasidic-style coats as Puritan churchmen (played by Ümit Celebi and Steven
Rattazzi), for instance; a young black man with an out-of-style brown afro,
metal-stud wristbands and designer baggy pants as Kastril (Reuben Jackson),
the would-be student of "quarreling" who wants to marry his widowed
sister to a Spanish gentleman. (Jacobean period clothes would’ve been no
more or less clear.)

What redeems this hit-or-miss
referencing is the astonishing concentration and madcap resourcefulness of Dan
Castellaneta (best known as the voice of Homer Simpson) as Subtle and Jeremy
Shamos as Face. The seemingly inexhaustible energy these two bring to their
constantly changing plots and plans, the inventive enthusiasm they apply to
each and every new guise and absurd scenario, creates a sense of snowballing
inspiration that becomes the real subject of the evening. Others help–notably
Hillel Meltzer as Drugger, Johann Carlo as Dol Common and Matthew Saldivar as
Surly–but it’s really Subtle and Face who drive home the truly immortal
Jonsonian point that our psychic survival depends as much on knowing how to
properly lose our wits as knowing how to keep them.

Classic Stage Co., 136 E.
13th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 677-4210 ext. 2, through March 12.

Two Sisters
and a Piano
Nilo Cruz
Cruz is a Cuban-American writer who has been associated with the Public Theater
since the 1995 production of his play Dancing on Her Knees. He has also
been produced at New York Theater Workshop and other prominent theaters around
the country. I haven’t seen his work before. In a recent interview, he
said that Two Sisters and a Piano is a fictionalization of a true story
about his homeland: "In 1989, a group of dissident artists led by a poet,
wrote a letter to the regime asking for the country to open up and accept new
ideologies, especially Perestroika. As a result, a group of brigadiers came
to the poet’s house, dragged her out to the middle of her street, and made
her eat her manifesto."

This anecdote might suggest
a stridently political drama. As it happens, apart from a few generic scenes
with militia guards threatening people in the dark and confiscating furniture,
Two Sisters is primarily an intimate story about maintaining emotional
balance under extreme circumstances and, well, loving the one you’re with.

The two titular sisters
are under house arrest in their family’s spacious colonial home in Havana,
following a term of imprisonment due to the manifesto one of them wrote. Maria
Celia–played with beautifully poised self-possession by Adriana Sevan in
this production directed by Loretta Greco–is a writer whose husband is
abroad trying to arrange political asylum. Sofia is a dreamy pianist–played
with wonderfully reckless sensuality by the inimitable Daphne Rubin-Vega (the
original Mimi in Rent)–who practically throws herself at a nervous
piano tuner who shows up with a special permit.

The touching relationship
between the sisters is the most successful part of the piece. Their lovely dance
together in the second act, begun to soothe Sofia’s pique at being stood
up by the piano tuner, becomes a moving and complex picture of two deeply erotic
spirits and a familial bond severely tested by the joint isolation. Unfortunately,
such poignant details can’t possibly compensate for the implausibility
of the main plot line, which involves an affair between Maria Celia and the
army lieutenant employed to intercept and read her mail.

Cruz introduces a curious
game in which Lieutenant Portuondo (stiffly and fecklessly played by Paul Calderon)
agrees to read some of Maria Celia’s husband’s letters to her if she
will recite some of her stories to him, but the author doesn’t seem aware
of the credibility problems this raises, or of the situation’s potential
subtleties had he solved them. No self-respecting, activist writer, for instance,
would so readily let down her emotional guard with a man so crudely cruel as
to dangle a packet of her husband’s letters in front of her. Nor would
she believe for a second that letters she was prevented from examining were
really from him. Nor does Calderon possess the animal magnetism necessary for
the whole thing to read as some ineluctable process of pure sexual chemistry.

Cruz has an admirable ability
to isolate and frame certain very simple, impassioned moments, but his inattention
to the complexities those moments inevitably give rise to leaves his work feeling

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette
St. (betw. E. 4th St. & Astor Pl.), 239-6200, through March 12.