by Royall Tyler
The Metropolitan Playhouse, New York
October 17, 2009
Now in its eighteenth season, New York’s Metropolitan Playhouse continues its mission to reexamine America’s theatrical heritage. Past productions have ranged from key nineteenth-century works such as John Augustus Stone’s 1829 “Indian” drama Metamora, Anna Cora Mowatt’s 1845 comedy Fashion, and Dion Boucicault’s depiction of slavery in The Octoroon (1859), to seldom seen twentieth-century plays including Langdon Mitchell’s dissection of modern marriage in The New York Idea (1906), Susan Glaspell’s free-speech drama Inheritors (1922), and Arthur Arent’s “Living Newspaper” Power (1937). Now, in their most recent production, the Metropolitan goes back to the beginning, staging Royall Tyler’s comedy The Contrast, the first play by an American to receive a professional production in the United States.
The very nature of the “American” is at issue in Tyler’s play. First staged in 1787, the work manifests a great debt to English and continental drama (the echoes of Sheridan are obvious), while busily, even anxiously Americanizing its plots and characters. The action is straightforward: Maria Van Rough, a serious young lady with literary interests, is engaged to Billy Dimple, a fashionable young man just returned from a visit to England (which seems to have ruined his character). Dimple, though engaged, is also wooing the gossipy, flirtatious Charlotte Manly and her equally silly friend Letitia. When Charlotte’s sober and virtuous brother, Colonel Henry Manly, appears on the scene, he falls immediately in love with Maria (who reciprocates). Joining together the two virtuous Americans, Maria and Henry, is the business of the play; at the same time Billy Dimple, the anglicized fop who sneers at his homeland, must be thoroughly put down. Throw into the mix a couple of comical servants and some eavesdropping scenes, and you have a fairly typical comedy of the period.
This could easily be a deadly boring costume drama. The Metropolitan’s production, however, proves anything but musty. Director Alex Roe has removed all the trappings of the period piece—there is no set, and the costumes are restricted to tank tops and pants or skirts. The only props are two full-size mannequins dressed to the height of period fashion; these are moved about as the action progresses, and sometimes used as chairs or coat stands. In a play that condemns an interest in fashion as a sign of moral weakness, the dummies seem to embody all the old-world frippery that good Americans should reject. The pared-down approach doesn’t always work. The actors engage in a good deal of pantomime—removing hats, gloves, and scarves; waving fans; pouring drinks; fighting with swords—which is occasionally distracting or puzzling (perhaps some small allowance of accessories would have helped). But the stripping away of external elements does pay off. Limiting the actors to body and words has a vitalizing effect, particularly in the case of the no-nonsense couple, Maria and Henry. Getting an audience to warm to these two isn’t easy—we may acknowledge their superior qualities, but we enjoy the company of the “bad” characters so much more. In a pleasant surprise, Maria Silverman and Rob Skolits, playing their roles with the utmost sincerity, manage to make Maria Van Rough and Henry Manly engaging. It is enjoyable to watch their characters slowly thaw as they fall in love. Skolits even pulls off Manly’s long speech about the fate of nations: when he speaks of “the common good” being lost in “the pursuit of private interest,” he is almost topical.
While the virtuous are rewarded with love, the wicked in turn receive harsh lessons. Amanda Jones as Charlotte purrs and smiles her way through all sorts of bad behavior; Bryan Close’s Billy Dimple pushes foppishness about as far as it can go—he sometimes plays too broadly, but his eye-rolling moments of horror when faced with Manly’s immovable virtue are quite fun. When Charlotte and Dimple get their respective comeuppances, one is almost sorry. A more ambiguous character is Maria’s father Van Rough (George C. Hosmer). His consent to the breaking of Maria’s engagement to Dimple is essential to a happy, comic ending, and it is quite clear that his reasons are primarily financial (he discovers that Dimple is gambling away his estate). With his repeated cry of “mind the main chance,” he is rather a seedy, greedy figure and an early example of the tight-fisted “stage Dutchman” (a stereotype that has been lost to history). Hosmer plays him as a good-hearted vulgarian, whose spouting of materialist virtues nicely balances Manly’s loftier sentiments.
While Manly and Dimple circle one another, their servants, Jonathan and Jessamy, do likewise. Brad Fraizer has his work cut out for him as the proud but unsophisticated Jonathan, in service to Manly. Rejecting the title of servant as un-American (he prefers “waiter”), Jonathan is the source not only of much of the play’s physical humor (Fraizer has fun with the clumsy wooing scene) but also of most of its topical references (despite the helpful program notes, modern audiences are unlikely to get much out of the nods to Shay’s Rebellion and the Society of Cincinnati). Of all the characters, Jonathan seems most closely tied to his period, and, despite Fraizer’s efforts, the least accessible. Matt Renskers deserves mention here. As Dimple’s fashionable servant Jessamy he has a marvelous presence and droll attitude; part of the joke is that he seems to display a more authentically elegant manner than does his master.
At the Metropolitan, the very earliest of American plays lives on.