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Theatre in Review: The Alchemist (Red Bull Theater/New World Stages)

Reg Rogers, Jennifer Sánchez, Manoel Felciano. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Before we get to talking about the frantic, brazenly dishonest, and riotously reprehensible shenanigans that make up this production, one thing must be made clear. This is not Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. Adaptor Jeffrey Hatcher has helped himself to most of the characters and incidents from the 1610 original, refashioning a somewhat obscure piece of Jacobean comic intrigue into a burlesque farce for contemporary audiences. It's a bit like what Jocelyn Bioh did last summer with Merry Wives; more to the point, it is seemingly modeled on Sly Fox, Larry Gelbart's top-to-bottom rewrite of Jonson's Volpone. Now that you know this, you are free to enjoy this cast of morally bankrupt con artists and the parade of fools who are complicit in their own hoodwinking. As W. C. Fields once pointed out, you can't cheat an honest man.

As in Jonson, the multiple schemes are set in motion by Face, a servant who has appropriated the home of his absent master as a staging ground; he is aided by Subtle, a mountebank with a dozen false identities at his command, and Dol Common, their fetching and eminently practical female associate. This trio has a different plot for each gullible individual who comes knocking at their door; they're also not above maneuvering to cheat each other out of the ill-gotten gains.

Chief among them is Reg Rogers as Subtle: Indulging in high-flown volleys of pidgin Latin to demonstrate his knowledge of arcana, staggering around the stage feigning blindness, and striking laughably transparent virtuous poses, he is a master farceur. An actor in the grand manner, he savors each syllable of his overripe dialogue: "O rotund sinner!", he denounces one dissatisfied customer, carrying on like the fourth Barrymore sibling.

As Face, Manoel Felciano, is a fine companion in skullduggery, whether imitating a stately portrait in a window frame, whining that his latest false persona "is barely a speaking role," or trying to pass himself off as a pietist named Tribulation Wholesome. Jennifer Sanchez underplays skillfully even when running around dressed as a fairy queen in one of the plot's most outrageous flim-flams. She also knows how make use of her assets: Warning her colleagues, "If we three do not this treasure equal share you two shall not share mine," she provocatively extends a well-turned leg, adding, "Tis a metaphor." So delightfully does this trio go about such seamy business that it is impossible not to be happily complicit.

Director Jesse Berger has rounded up a fine cast of stooges for Subtle and company to bamboozle. Nathan Christopher, of the popping eyes and gaping mouth, is Drugger, the infinitely suggestible tobacconist who, asked to impersonate a knight, shows up in a full suit of armor. As a foppish idiot duped into believing that a "magic" flea will bring him success at the gaming table, Carson Elrod turns ratiocination into a spectator sport; you can practically hear his rusty brain gears turning. Jacob Ming-Trent, outfitted in yards of gold and lace and blown up to the dimension of a beach ball, is dissipated Sir Epicure Mammon, announcing, "I am piety made flesh" as he tosses around bribes. He is accompanied by Louis Mustillo as the well-named Surly, a Dutchman who speaks pure Brooklynese. "You gotta a problem with that?" he snarls.

Also hailing from Holland is Ananais, "a religious maniac," who, in a wild moment of mistaken identity, discovers his deep-seated homoerotic impulses; as played by Stephen DeRosa, he harvests laughs from an accent rooted in bizarre dipthong sounds. Allen Tedder, bellicose and none too bright as an argumentative fellow seeking lessons in "quarreling methodology," is a perfect portrait of macho vacuity. He is accompanied Teresa Avia Lim as his man-eating sister, a widow who, ten days after her husband's death, is on the hunt for his successor. ("Piteous madam, I see you are still in mourning," observes Subtle. "Yes," she replies. "Also black is slimming.")

There's no way to describe the mélange of plot, counterplot, and subplot that follows, as the bell rings, new disguises are thrown around the room, and doors open and shut with precision. As in Jonson, the action is really a series of comings and goings with little overall design. But the hilarity remains steady for the two-hour running time, largely, I suspect because Berger and company know exactly how far to take this nonsense, staying on just this side of comic excess. It's a remarkable balancing act.

The chaos is well contained on Alex Distler's sturdy period set, fitted with a staircase suitable for wild chases; Cha See's lighting adds a warmly incandescent period touch. Tilly Grimes' costumes combine comically exaggerated Jacobean fashions with amusingly anachronistic touches; Tommy Kurzman's wig, hair, makeup designs contribute to the overall effect. Greg Pliska provides original music and sound design, the latter of which makes good use of the title song from Goldfinger.

One of these days, some company will have to take a flyer on Jonson's play, if only to give us a chance to see how it holds up. (It is, to say the least, an effortful read, but it may play better than that.) But right now, when we could all use a laugh or ten, this will more than do. Hatcher's script is faithful to the spirit of a playwright who took a dim view of humanity, finding solace in satire. And Berger's production is a tonic. --David Barbour

(22 November 2021)

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