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Ho-hum. Siiighhh. Stretttccch. That was me wondering when something was going to happen in Arena Stage’s very pretty presentation of Theophilus North, a well-mannered and almost entirely inert adaptation of the Thornton Wilder novel by the actor and freshman playwright Matthew Burnett.
Hey, that was the dutiful response: At least one other critic had a nice little nap.
Understandably: For a play with a bicyclist hero and universalist aspirations, Theophilus North feels all too much like an amiable stroll down a fairly narrow memory lane—a lane, moreover, with an exclusionary gate at its end. The young man of the title is partly a stand-in for Wilder himself—the author was, like his protagonist, a French tutor in the rarefied seaside air of Newport, R.I., for a summer in his youth—and partly a kind of imagined biography of his twin brother, who in Wilder family tradition would have been christened Theophilus had he not died at birth. And though the stage Theophilus does learn a bit about human nature during his sojourn among the super-rich, the play spends most of its theatrical energy charting the changes he sets in motion among them—changes a modern audience won’t care much about, unimpressed as it’s likely to be by the sufferings of the yacht-club set.
Theophilus’ own character arc, meanwhile, is vanishingly shallow. Quitting his schoolteacher job in the opening scene, the fresh-faced young Yalie buys an ancient car, names it Hannah, and hits the open road in search of adventure and edification. Hong Kong and Budapest, Berlin and Shanghai are in the itinerary of his aspirations, but he makes it only as far as Newport before hardhearted Hannah gives out on him, spurring the switch to that bicycle. And that, unfortunately, is the biggest transformation Wilder and Burnett give their title character until he realizes, at evening’s end, that home and the writer’s life are what he’s been looking for all along.
Burnett keeps his stagecraft spare and nonrealist enough to please Wilder himself, but he deploys every overused tool in the playwright’s kit in the effort to keep us interested: the direct address, the ironic aside, the expositional conversation, the chorus of townies speaking scene-setting lines. Mark Cuddy’s direction approaches all this in the kind of high-lyrical tone you might expect, which may deceive fans of Our Town into thinking they’ve experienced something equally rich. But with the exception of fine performances from Matthew Floyd Miller (who embodies Theophilus with a keen and kindly sense of the proprieties that guide him) and Siobhan Mahoney in several supporting roles, the only real riches on display at Arena are G.W. Mercier’s warm wood-paneled sets and simple-chic costumes, which together must have set the company back a bundle.
The Silent Woman, by contrast, is a noisy romp nearly from start to finish, a door-slamming, pee-joking, boob-flaunting, food-flinging farce directed with a naughty snicker by Shakespeare Theatre chief Michael Kahn and upholstered by designers Andrew Jackness and Murell Horton in a riot of eye-popping vinyls and velvets. You couldn’t nap if you had narcolepsy.
The plot, as if it matters, involves a grumpy old Elizabethan (Ted van Griethuysen is the aptly named Morose) who so craves peace and quiet that he’s wrapped everything from his furniture to his footmen in noise-absorbing padding. (Local supporting-actor mainstay Hugh Nees is a hoot as a
carrot-topped troll doll of a servant swaddled in acid-green quilting.) He’s put out the word that he’s looking for a mute bride, too—and to avoid the risk of being disinherited, his much-abused nephew teams with a gang of high-spirited wits-about-town to arrange for the old man to meet and marry a soft-spoken beauty named Epicoene. Naturally enough, she is not what she appears to be, and shortly after the vows have been said, the demure bride is revealed as a willful scold—worse, a scold with fun-loving friends and a keen desire to join the society-hostess ranks.
Ben Jonson’s extended sex-joke of a play has nothing whatever to say, except perhaps that the poseurs in its flighty social set have their equivalent in every demimonde, so a revel in its delicious outrageousness is purely a guilty pleasure. And what pleasures are on display! Naomi Jacobson’s Madame Haughty is a poisonous bonbon packaged in blue-black and orange, Floyd King’s Sir Amorous La Foole a giddy fop in a preposterous footlong ruff, David Sabin’s Captain Otter a cheerfully bilious buffoon dressed to swill in the rattiest of furry hangings. And oh, the word picture he paints of his nagging wife, played by a rampaging Nancy Robinette as a kind of evil twin of her last Shakespeare Theatre role, Little Foxes’ meek Birdie Hubbard.
And though van Griethuysen gets the last slot in the curtain call, the evening belongs indisputably to the young man in the turquoise tights: Daniel Breaker, a fresh-out-of-Juilliard newcomer who makes his local debut as Truewit, the scheming fashionista from whose agile mind much of the silliness springs. Breaker takes to the classical style—and to the bawdy twists and turns of The Silent Woman—like a Barrymore to his booze. If we’re lucky, this won’t be the last we see of him. CP