So I'll just cut to the chase - does Spiro bag his big game this time around, or is Nicholas Nickleby the second of his follies? Happily, judging from Part I, the answer is "Yes (mostly)!" - even though Veloudos has a problem right at the center of his production. His lead, the up-and-coming Jack Cutmore-Scott, proves a confidently bland (if handsome) hero, while as his smarter sister, Elizabeth A. Rimar tries her best to look tormented but if anything is slightly less interesting. Meanwhile the great comedienne Maureen Keiller does better as their mother, but for some reason misses the wry comic edge to her character (she's sweet, but a bit silly). The point is that the Nicklebys are nervous, delicate people, unsure of their way in the world but basically good, who aren't quick to demonstrate courage or pluck (although they have plenty of both). Their adventures represent, as Dickens's heroes' often do, the clash between our inner, nobler sensibilities and the machinations of the cold, cruel world. Right now that's not happening, because none of the leads are suggesting much affectionate inner life, and so in a way, the play's arc isn't happening either. But luckily, around this unhappy family Veloudos has cast most of Boston's best character actors, and they pretty much play the dickens out of a cascade of unforgettable personalities, and so carry the show.
Did I say cascade? I meant torrent. A torrent that's also a tonic, by the way. For now seems like just the right time to get re-acquainted with a promethean talent like Dickens, when we're getting awfully used to carefully crafted little plays about a handful of characters in which we slowly, and indirectly, get around to pondering questions like "Did Mother ever love me?" or "What do I really think about my breasts?"
Next to this kind of thing, Dickens looks like a font of invention. Perhaps because he was a font of invention - indeed, in Nicholas Nickleby, the characters (and sometimes the caricatures) keep coming, and coming, and coming, each more sharply drawn than the last. The names alone tell you as much: Wackford Squeers, Madame Mantolini, Miss Snevellicci, Mulberry Hawk - who could forget these sardonic sobriquets, much less the wickedly sketched personages attached to them? Even the hero's name is a rippling, rhythmic mnemonic. And the plot - it keeps coming and coming, too. Innocence betrayed! Death cheated! Dickens is always a page-turner, in a highly theatrical way, and that drumbeat of narrative suspense makes Nicholas Nickleby inherently gripping.
Indeed, let me repeat myself. Absorbed by the misadventures of the innocent Nicholas, I was struck again and again by just how thin our dramatic concerns, and even aspirations, have become. Dickens wrote for maximum emotional impact - so he's never afraid of melodrama, although in his hands it achieves a nearly tragic pitch. And while he may tiptoe around sex (he makes up for it with plenty of lusty comedy), he's quite blunt about much that make us blush today - things like money, and class, and who's got how much of either, and why this should be so. Writers like Wharton and Fitzgerald used to be able to write about these things in America, but now, frankly, money has become to us what the down-and-dirty was to the Victorians; we just can't talk about it! What's even more striking is that Dickens is so unafraid of villainy - in fact he revels in it; he's quite comfortable with characters who are utterly irredeemable (just like in real life), and so Nicholas Nickleby teems with rogues and charlatans and cowards and sadists who wander the wide world without explanation or apology (just like in real life!). And the hypocrisy - was there ever a greater poet of Christian hypocrisy than Dickens? Indeed, his brilliant skewering of pious self-interest may be what makes him most relevant today.
Although frankly, it's the political dimension of Nickleby that right now Veloudos may be artfully dodging. But before I go any further - it's time for full disclosure. I actually saw the original version of Nickleby, and not in America, either, but in London - back when Ben Kingsley, Graham Crowden, and Timothy Spall were still working with the great Roger Rees, David Threlfall, and the rest of the brilliant cast that later toured the States. I have to admit, I have rarely been as electrified by any performance as I was by that show, and as I watched the Lyric version whole scenes from the original seemed to leap up again before my eyes, fresh with the same fire that flickered within them thirty years ago. Even the set (below, with Will Lyman, Maureen Keiller, Jack Cutmore-Scott, and Elizabeth A. Rimar) inevitably recalled the original to life.
|Photo: Mark S. Howard|