Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist showcases a set of characters whose changes are rung in a distinctly sour key: a trio of con artists, each with a different face to put on for whichever new mark comes along, and an array of targets so ill-content with their lot in life that they’ll believe almost anything if it helps ’em move up to the next level on the food chain.
Updated to the present day, Jonson’s 17th-century commentary on the swindler’s impulse and the greedy eagerness of the gulled certainly has a contemporary chime in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal and the housing-bubble collapse. (Even the play’s plague-panic references seem apt, what with our swine flu worries and all.) What it hasn’t got, at least in this energetic but unfocused staging, is the effervescence that elevates well-timed farce into the realm of gleeful delirium—and without that, the fun can seem a trifle strained.
Not all of it: There are pleasures to be mined in the specifically physical comedy of this aspirational gambler (Nick Cordileone’s Dapper) or that easily roused evangelical (Robert Creighton’s explosive Deacon Ananias). Murell Horton’s costumes, not least the one that suggests Donald Trump’s Dream Vacation At Graceland, are a hoot. And the escalating airport-terminal arrivals and departures of the second act—in which the various schemes of scam artists Subtle (David Manis), Face (Michael Milligan), and Doll (Kate Skinner) first collide, then collapse—look to have been tightly choreographed.
But the magic never quite gathers (never mind the belated entrance of a character done up, inexplicably, as Glinda the Good Witch), and the laughs never build to the helpless, hiccupping pitch you might hope for when you spy a set with no fewer than eight doors to be slammed. Comic alchemy is always a
tricky thing—and with this unhappily earthbound Alchemist, the necessary chemistry just isn’t there.