Review: ‘The Alchemist,’ a Play in Search of Comedy Gold

Red Bull Theater brings on the cons and their marks in this adaptation of the 17th-century Ben Jonson work.

Let’s face it: Some people don’t just ask to be conned, they practically beg for it. Their greed, be it for money, sex or power, makes them vulnerable to the most extraordinary fabrications: the more outlandish the promises, the harder they fall for them. Conveniently, their hubris and self-confidence shelter them from the fact that they are gullible idiots.

Such perfect marks are matched with perfect swindlers — shrewd, resourceful, prone to fart jokes — in the Ben Jonson comedy “The Alchemist,” now being revived by the Red Bull company. Naturally, shenanigans and slapstick ensue, spiced with an abundance of saucy double, and sometimes single entendres.

For the occasion, Red Bull has reunited the team behind its 2017 hit adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector”: the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who translated Jonson’s dense Jacobean text into a vernacular that is easier on 21st-century New York ears, and the director Jesse Berger, who seems to have never met a door that could not be slammed in a hurry. The pairing is felicitous, though the result is not as consistently funny as their earlier show, especially in the slack second act. Admittedly, very little is.

After his master leaves plague-infested London for his home in the country, “for he could well afford to,” the butler, Face (Manoel Felciano), and his accomplices Subtle (Reg Rogers) and Dol Common (Jennifer Sánchez) use the now-empty city house to entertain a series of visitors ripe for the fleecing.

There is, for example, Dapper, who wants a good-luck charm to improve his gambling odds and is made to believe a simple flea, conveniently near-invisible, will do the trick. The expert comic actor Carson Elrod fleshes out Dapper with a veritable arsenal of mimicry and affectations that make his every appearance a delight.

Other targets are more satirically pointed, like the pious Ananias (Stephen DeRosa), who is from “a Protestant sect banished to Holland for the crime of being perfect,” or the excellently named Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent, in fine form), who covets the philosopher’s stone that could turn any metal into gold — Jonson’s approach is here very similar to that of Molière.

Carol Rosegg

Sir Mammon’s appetites are boundless, and he is bewitched by the suggestion that a single mystery word can trigger the comely Dol into a carnal frenzy. “He that makes the stone must be virtuous, he that buys it, not really,” he says. “Tis the genius of Capitalism.”

Hatcher dispenses such anachronisms judiciously — a joke referring to the James Bond universe is milked for all it’s worth, especially visually — but mostly he avoids the trap of over-relying on them for easy laughs. (The modern model of a classic play being jolted into the present remains David Ives’s “The School for Lies,” a dizzying rewriting of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.”)

The dialogue often zings, and Berger orchestrates the farcical comings and goings on Alexis Distler’s bi-level set at the requisite madcap pace — at the performance I attended, the excellent Rogers (who played the director of the musical-within-the-musical in “Tootsie”) ad-libbed a line about all the stairs he had to climb.

But the show is better at setting up the plot than at resolving it when we return from intermission — it is, after all, easier to throw a bunch of pins up in the air than it is to juggle them.

Luckily, the cast members continue to exert themselves relentlessly in the service of laughter, from mere exaggerated inflections to all-out clowning. If acting is a form of conning, theatergoers, too, are willing victims.

The Alchemist
Through Dec. 19 at the Red Bull Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours.

Source: Theater -


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