Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spiro's Dickens of a show

You can't fault Spiro Veloudos (at left, embedded in Dickens) for lacking ambition. In previous seasons, he has squeezed Sondheim's Follies into his intimate theatre, the Lyric Stage - with mixed results.  Now he has attempted an even bigger project - David Edgar's six-hour adaptation (slimmed down from eight and a half!) of Dickens' mammoth novel Nicholas Nickleby.  The "long" version, of course, took America by storm in the mid-eighties, in a triumphant RSC production helmed by Trevor Nunn.  Since then, though, the show has been rarely seen, due to its cost and logistics (even in the slimmer version, there are something like 150 roles!).

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
So I'm in the odd position of judging the Lyric against a production that even now seems to me close to the most perfect theatrical experience I've ever had. And is that really fair? After all, Trevor Nunn, et. al., are generally considered a pretty exceptional crowd. But even compared against their legend, I have to say the Lyric has done well.  There are one or two missteps (the Mantolinis work hard, but are miscast, and is doubling Wackford Squeers and Mulberry Hawk a bit confusing?), but generally Spiro serves up a tasty smorgasboard of Dickensiana.  Will Lyman etched a chillingly low-key Ralph Nickleby (Nicholas's cruelly calculating uncle), and Nigel Gore almost made me forget about Ben Kingsley as the brutal Wackford Squeers, in no small part because he got great back-up from Kerry Dowling as his formidable wife and Sasha Castroverde (who I'm glad to see break into the "professional" sphere after lighting up the fringe for a few years) as his delusional daughter.  Under their cruel usage, Jason Powers put a more comic spin on Smike than David Threlfall did in the original, but was still very moving.  Meanwhile, at the edges of the show, Leigh Barrett painted a beautiful miniature of the miniature portraitist Miss La Creevy, while the versatile Michael Steven Costello and Daniel Berger-Jones made the most of a dozen different roles apiece.  Likewise Larry Coen sliced the ham deliciously thick as Vincent Crummles (he of the famous Theatrical Troupe), and as his untalented daughter, the aging "Infant Phenomenon," Alycia Sacco was actually funnier than I remember the role being in Trevor Nunn's version.  Perhaps best of all was the reliable Peter A. Carey as the poignant Newman Noggs, who again I thought was as good as the original (the redoubtable Edward Petherbridge, who won a Tony for it).  When I first saw Part I back in London, I was skeptical going in (Four hours?? I thought), but then went straight to the box office at intermission to get a ticket to Part II.  I'm betting most of the Lyric's patrons will do the same thing.

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