Just like in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Born in the U.S.A., the most famous song in Threepenny Opera is the one that was conceived and added at the last minute. Most often recorded under the title “Mack the Knife,” the tune was penned just before Threepenny’s 1928 Berlin debut when its star demanded an introduction for his character, the notorious gangster MacHeath. Of all the elements of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s bizarre allegory—usually interpreted as a pitiless indictment of pitiless capitalism—“Mack the Knife” cuts deepest across cultures and decades. I first heard it when it was repurposed as a McDonald’s TV jingle circa 1987-1990. Clearly, pitiless capitalism won that round.
In Signature Theatre’s new production, director Matthew Gardiner aims to give Mack, and Threepenny, their teeth back. He’s chosen a grimy 1994 translation (Robert David MacDonald handles the dialogue and Jeremy Sams the lyrics) and set the piece in a vaguely Clockwork Orange–inflected dystopian London. The dates on the British tabloids (and the Sky News broadcast) you pass on your way into Signature’s Max Theatre indicate a closer future, though. Queen Elizabeth has died and Prince Charles abdicated, making the coronation of King William the backdrop for Brecht’s slippery tale of organized beggars and bigamist crime lords.
“Mack the Knife” is, in Sams’ interpretation, “The Flick Knife Song.” We hear it from Natascia Diaz’s Jenny, the working girl who may prove to be Mack’s undoing. “He’s a rapist and a sadist/And they haven’t caught him yet,” her breathy dossier concludes. But despite a lyrical rap sheet more damning than Tyler, the Creator’s, we never actually see Mack (a louche Mitchell Jarvis) do anything worse than receive stolen property, threaten his own henchmen, and visit a whorehouse, where he seems to be one of the better-behaved johns. Eventually he’ll cop to a few capital offenses. But for most of the evening, so yawning is the gulf between the demonic MacHeath we hear about and the merely dissolute one Gardiner and Jarvis show us in private that it’s reasonable to wonder if the reports of his extravagant crimes are nothing more than a smear campaign.
Brecht’s best satirical conceit remains the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, who are the pimps of London’s pity trade: They provide professional beggars with fixed posts and filthy, tattered costumes in exchange for most of their takings. Bobby Smith (who won a Helen Hayes Award last week for his supporting actor turn in Signature’s Spin) and Donna Migliaccio both exude gilded amorality in these roles, but they don’t deceive themselves as to their own virtue, or anybody else’s. Keeping the human empathy gland pumping is “a constant search for novelty,” Mr. Peachum shrugs.
The other standout is Signature fixture Erin Driscoll as the Peachums’ daughter Polly, who’s just married that miscreant MacHeath. (Driscoll’s sportive rendition of the girls-just-wanna-have-fun confessional “Barbara’s Song” is the musical highlight of the first act, though Migliaccio’s “Ballad of Sexual Imperative” comes close.) Costume designer Frank Labovitz took London’s Chav culture as his cue, dressing MacHeath’s droogs in bits of tracksuits and business attire and fake tattoos, but for Polly he’s ginned up a gaudy yellow-plaid-with-lace-collar getup that Elizabeth Banks might wear in a Hunger Games movie. Her brigand bridegroom has an arrangement with the chief of police (a sturdy John Leslie Wolfe)—they’re old army buddies, after all. His marriage to Polly is too much for Mr. Peachum, who flexes his own political muscle to fit MacHeath for a noose. By Act 2, Mack is in the clink, but there are soapier complications yet to be, uh, sudsed up—which costs the show in dramatic momentum just when you want it to start building to a crescendo.
It’s an invigorating mess, though. It isn’t Gardiner’s fault that Brecht’s strains of melodrama and agitprop don’t really stir in together so much as seem to occupy discrete, parallel tracks of meaning. That raping, fire-starting—if you believe everything you hear sung, anyway—Mack is supposed to be a baby-eating capitalist, sure, but Peachum is the one who comes off like Neal McDonough in that gross Cadillac commercial. Mack’s most memorable song is “The Ballad of Easy Life.” Jarvis is never more charming or at ease than when soft-shoeing his way through it.
Misha Kachman’s set puts a stock ticker over the actors’ heads, a weatherbeaten Union Jack on the floor, and on the walls, a neon sign reading “IN$TANT CA$H” and a condom dispenser. There’s also a replica of Banksy’s “ONE NATION UNDER CCTV” mural.It looks like much of New York Avenue NE, honestly. Upstairs, the eight-piece band conducted by Gabriel Mangiante and Jacob Kidder attacks Weill’s score with the bellicosity it demands.
At Saturday night’s performance, Jarvis accidentally nudged his cell door open. Pulling it shut, he shot the audience a impish glance and put his finger over his lips, ad-libbing, “I want to see how it ends.”
I do, too. Gardiner has given this long-lived Rubik’s Cube of a show a few admirably vigorous turns. But it remains, like so many murders by flick-knife, unsolved.