Monday, November 29, 2010

The second half of the Spiro Veloudos's grand Dickensian gamble, Nicholas Nickleby (above), has been running for some time at the Lyric Stage, but I only got a chance to catch up with it a little over a week ago (it closes December 19th).  I'd been quite impressed by Part I, and am happy to report that Part II carries on with pretty much the same high spirits and confident brio.

Pretty much, that is.  It does lose steam a bit (or at least it did the night I saw it) - even though adapter David Edgar cleverly ties his many plot strands into nice tidy bundles over the course of the evening. Indeed, the pace of Part II sometimes hastened to quite a clip - poor Smike was all but hustled to his sickbed, and then to the grave (in general the editing-down from the original 8-hour version seemed a bit bumpier in the second half).

And alas, despite its relative narrative cohesion, Part II had a void where its central development should have been, just as Part I did.  There it was Jack Cutmore-Scott's performance as Nicholas which remained unvarying even as his character was tried, tested, and found true.  In the second half, however, Nicholas has found his feet, and operates in a steadier state, so Cutmore-Scott's glossy romantic appeal served the part well enough.  This time around it was veteran Will Lyman who didn't find his arc; just as Part I depends on Nicholas's rise, so Part II revolves around his uncle Ralph's decline and fall - yet Lyman seemed invested only in the role's forbidding surface; oddly, he was quite moving once the elder Nickleby had come to ruin, but how, precisely, he descended from cold-heartedness to vindictive evil remained a mystery; the internal work was just missing.

The villains briefly take the upper hand in Nicholas Nickleby.
There were a few other gaps. The Brothers Cheeryble, who form a happy capitalist counterpoint to the nightmarish Ralph and his minions, were hearty, but not quite eccentric enough (they were upstaged by Neil A. Casey in an amusingly bluff turn as their clerk). And alas, once the hilarious Crummles Theatrical Troupe has been hustled off stage, the novel itself produces only a few new memorable characters. Still, Leigh Barrett got to spread her wings a bit as Peg Sliderskew, and Sasha Castroverde, after chewing the scenery as Fanny Squeers, did a complete 180 to convincingly portray the quietly luminous Madeleine Bray. Several other actors kept up the good work from Part I: Michael Steven Costello was just as creepy here as he'd been earlier, Daniel Berger-Jones carried on with the same confident swagger, and Peter A. Carey remained just as quietly touching as Newman Noggs. And as Mother Nickleby, Maureen Keiller began to find the addled, silly center of her role. But alas, the central sentimental, nearly-romantic bond between Nicholas and his sister (Elizabeth A. Rimar) failed to really materialize - which is a shame, because sisters (or rather sisters-in law) are emotionally central to Dickens, and the vision of romantic domesticity with which Nicholas Nickleby closes is a bit more - well, intriguing than the Lyric version seems to realize.

Still, the production does close with a touching tableau - and one perfect for Christmastime (particularly Christmastime in a recession). If you're tired of that other Dickens yuletide classic, this year the richer, deeper Nicholas Nickleby could prove the perfect Christmas gift to yourself.

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