A Dreary Day in 1610

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, The Alchemist

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

In Ben Jonson’s 1610 play The Alchemist, a group of early seventeenth century con men, aided by a flaky prostitute, set up shop in a house outside of London during the 1610 plague and attempt to bamboozle, con, scam and fleece anybody who walks through their door. They almost do it, too, amid a madhouse of running and shouting people. It is a play that could be staged today with all of the flim flam that goes in on America, with real estate deception, bank fraud phony and stolen credit cards tossed in.

The play was revived last week by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. They bill it in their marketing and publicity as the “rarely staged” play. I saw in on Saturday and now I know why it is rarely staged.

The problem with The Alchemist is not the idea of the show, a daring one for 1610, but the script. You get lost watching it after five minutes. What on earth are these people trying to do and how are they doing it? Characters race about this way and that, scream at each other, frown and smiles, run u and down stairs and become frantic watch smoke bellow from a first floor laboratory. Why?

There is no real plot to the story and the action is so fast, and so furious, that you cannot follow it.

The folks at the Shakespeare Theater try hard enough to rescue this historic “gem.” The actors are superb. No one could have done a better job than this brave troupe of performers. The two story house set, well-designed by Jonathan Went, with its high wooden walls and twisting staircase, is splendid. The play, though, is little more than a loud explosion of nonsense.

In the story, Lovewit leaves his home for several days. His servant, “Face,” and Face’s friend, “Subtle,” decide to use the house to fleece a naïve lawyer, Dapper. They start with schemes, including counterfeiting, and then swing back to the reliable prostitute, Dol, who uses all of her charms on him. Then others drift into the house and become victims, too. The alchemist, Subtle, a wizard looking elderly man in a raffish red coat, does everything except spin thread into gold for them. He has workers deposit all sorts of things in his big furnace and his caring assistant Face continually tells the lawyer, and the others, that things are running along smoothly.

And then, really, nothing else happens. And this takes up over two and a half hours.

I don’t want to tell you anything about the end because the way the play concluded was the only sensible thing that happened.

The scandals in the early seventeenth century were very similar to the scams of today and the perpetrators of them would stack up well against today’s flim flam men. Their pitch to victims, instant riches, is the same. Their guarantee that nobody will get caught is the same. The greed of people then is the same as today. Yet, in the muddle of the play, these similarities are not as striking as they might be.

The tragedy of Jonson’s play, directed by Bonnie Monte, is that he did not tell you much about London and England in 1610. A lot was going on then and yet you learn nothing. Take the plague. It was killing tens of thousands of people in England in those years and people walked about with scarves over their mouths or fled to the safer countryside. There was pandemonium everywhere and yet the play rarely mentions it.

There is a lot in the play about counterfeiting, something Americans today know very little about. Subtle is apparently an expert at counterfeiting and tries to enlist one man in a massive scheme to counterfeit Dutch money. The man asks if that is legal and Subtle says that counterfeiting is a crime, but he is not doing that. He is simply “casting” money and dispensing it. What’s wrong with that? This is another area that Jonson could have made more interesting.

Director Monte gets fine work from her performers, especially Jon Barker as Face, Bruce Cromer as Subtle, Jon Sprik as Dapper, James Michael Reilly as Ananias and Aedin Moloney as Dol. They are wonderful individually and even better as an ensemble. She did not have much of a play to work with, though. Let’s hope the theater world tosses The Alchemist back into the closet and lets it remain as an undiscovered “gem” for many more years to come.

PRODUCTION; Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Jonathan Wentz, Costumes: Nikki Delhomme, Lighting: Steve Rosen, Sound: Karin Graybash. The play is directed by Bonnie Monte. Runs through August 31.

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