review: the coward

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The Coward

by Nick Jones
Directed by Sam Gold
Featuring Jarlath Conroy, Richard Poe, Jeremy Strong, Christopher Evan Welch
LCT3 (Lincoln Center Theater new work) at The Duke, 229 W. 42nd Street
production web site:
http://www.new42.org/duke/duke_show.aspx?pid=3038

November 8, 2010 — December 4, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 23, 2010

Lincoln Center Theater serves the future of new play development in a range of ways including at the moment providing in its LCT3 space at The Duke on 42nd Street a full production of a play by a new voice initially developed at another venue. Nick Jones has crafted a story of filial legacies and pugilistic parental expectations in the deeply class conscious British upper class of the later 18th century.   Our play’s action begins with a father Nathaniel (Richard Poe) berating his 20-year-old naturalist son Lucidus (Jeremy Strong) to man up and set about dueling someone already.  The fact that this son sets about meeting these expectations by pestering an elderly blind man (portrayed by the excellent Jarlath Conroy in one of his several roles) to generate the grounds for a duel will set anyone’s teeth on edge.  And through we have humor, solid performances, and pleasing stage craft (that involves stage blood and intestines and times) we must grapple with the script and the tone.  It is not much more than a twee standup routine that goes on about an hour too long.

Playwright has crafted a world of fops and pistols and pastries.  Elegant costumes (Gabriel Berry) and elegant direction (Sam Gold) provide efficient and elegant stage pictures.  Sound design (Jane Shaw) and set design (David Zinn)  and lighting design (Ben Stanton) and even properties designs are, yes, elegant and (to these amateur eyes) deeply evocative of the 18th-century setting of this play.

Two historians of the 18th century seated beside me (one from Yale, one from NYU Law School) conclude by the end of the adventure that the playwright and director (no dramaturg is credited in the playbill) have gotten most of the details of dueling correct.  “They did their research”, according to my seat neighbors.  Except for a group kind of event decision at one point of the play, the dueling details are within bounds.  On the other hand, the tone of the play, the overall balance of the often exquisite elements (from handkerchief to delicately etched character moments and plot developments) are not, in the end, in bounds.  Or of a piece.  One of our duelists of a lower class says: “I may not have a father who loves me, but I have the right to kill, just like you.”  Manslaughter under cloak of dueling for honor based on a constructed slight wrapped in the mantle of equal rights?  Oh my.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 24, 2010)

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