Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Coward: Like Gilbert and Sullivan, But Without the Songs

Apart from the blood and guts (literally) that spew across the stage of the Duke Theater, playwright Nick Jones has given us a clever, often laugh-out-loud romp of a tale in The Coward, now previewing as part of Lincoln Center’s LCT3 productions of new works by up-and-coming playwrights.

Part Monty Python, part W. S. Gilbert (i. e. Gilbert and Sullivan without Mr. Sullivan's music), part Saturday Night Live, The Coward tells the tale of one Lucidus Culling, the scaredy-cat scion of an 18th century English nobleman whose sole aim in life is to see to it that the family’s honor is upheld through a never-ending round of duels—which explains why Lucidus is the family’s only-surviving son, a status he longs to preserve.

Picture Pee-wee Herman without his confident self-assuredness, or the Cowardly Lion as he quivers before the throne of the Wizard of Oz, and you will get a sense of how Lucidus (performed with great timid flair by Jeremy Strong) faces the world. 

Poor Lucidus.  All he wants is to be left alone to contemplate the beauty of butterflies or to join in tart-tasting picnics with his foppish friends Robert and Gavin (well acted by Steven Boyer and Stephen Ellis), who seem like he-men in comparison, or to pine over the distant but beautiful and wealthy Isabelle Dupree.   He also knows what he most definitely does not want, and that is to die in a duel.

That Lucidus is a disappointment to his father (a blustery Richard Poe) is an epic understatement.  So, with great reluctance, and in order to get into Daddy’s good graces, Lucidus agrees to fight a duel with the next person who manages to offend.  Not surprisingly, he targets a decrepit, blind old man—failing to understand that the rules of nobility allow for the old man to appoint his own strong and skilled son to stand in for him.

How Lucidus deals with this unexpected turn of events makes up the rest of Act I.  Suffice it to say, by Act II he has acquired a new reputation that has pleased his father to no end and has caught the amorous attention of Isabelle (played in grand Gilbert and Sullivan mode by Kristen Schaal).  

The play is aided to no small end by Gabriel Berry's dandified costumes, including some gloriously over-the-top hats.  Between Berry's work here, and the costumes created by Ann Hould-Ward for A Free Man of Color, theatrical closets are now bursting with 18th century fashion. 

If I were to make one suggestion, that would be to trim some of Act II, where the high comic style wanders into the world of too-much, including an abundance of blood, gore, and mean-spirited dialog.  The playwright seems to want to add some, in my view, unnecessary satiric bite to what had been a more subtle but still clear message underpinning the silliness. 

Still, Nick Jones is a smart and witty writer who has given us an original and clever play.  And mark The Coward as another feather in the cap of director Sam Gold, who is making quite a name for himself heading up such productions as last year’s Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens (both by Annie Baker), and the current sold-out production of Tigers Be Still (by Kim Rosenstock), and who has been appointed as the youngest associate artist of the Roundabout Theater Company.  Mr. Gold and the three playwrights mentioned here are in their 20s and 30s and represent a wave of wonderful young creative artists that are keeping the theater world moving gloriously into the future. 

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