It was the best of plays. It was the worst of plays…
And as the Dickens paraphrase so aptly describes, in our most recent day-night double header the home team managed a rousing and inspiring victory in the first game (Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, at the Second Stage Theatre) only to have the stuffing knocked out of them in the evening’s lopsided snooze fest (Hard Times, at The Pearl Theatre). The opener, a new tightly-crafted witty play by Tony award winning playwright Douglas Carter Beane was crammed with snappy dialogue. Hard Times, a revival of a play awkwardly assembled from the Dickens novel by Stephen Jeffries had enough discourse to fill three painful hours, but reminded me of a randomly over-stuffed suitcase.
The Fitches are an Upper East Side couple – Mr. Fitch (played exquisitely by John Lithgow), a frustrated novelist eeking out a living writing a society gossip column for the local paper and Mrs. Fitch (whose stellar portrayl by Jennifer Ehle is on par with her talented stage husband) a frustrated would-be gossip columnist. Together they live the life they write about – they’re thrilled to receive their last minute courier–deliverd invitation to the Semi Annual Ass Kisser’s Ball but find that the reality of Society life doesn’t always provide the juicey sensationalist tidbits necessary to sell papers.
Under constant pressure from the editor who we meet only via terse call-screened answering machine messages and Mr. Fitch’s conciliatory responses during a phone conversation, the couple is at their wit’s end to deliver the Big Story that eludes them. Thus is born a creative solution that takes on a life of its own and provides a humerous, if not a bit predictable plot twist. Lithgow and Ehle effortlessly deadpan their rapidly paced staccato interchanges that enage and challenge the audience to listen intently when not roaring with laughter from beginning to end.
Before I continue the merciless account of just how Hard a Time it was to sit through the Dickens reinterpretation, I must say for the record that The Pearl Theatre repertory company is one of my favorites. We’ve seen dozens of excellent productions of classic plays from Greek tragedy (Euripides’s Hecuba) to Shakespeare (Hamlet); from Molliere (Tartuffe) to George Bernard Shaw (Misalliance) to Tennessee Williams (Veaux Carre). Through this huge body of work we’ve come to appreciate the depth of acting talent of its ensemble cast as well as the consistently creative support team.
Having said that, one can only sympathize with the actors who must make the best of a very bad script in Hard Times and look forward to the next production. The cast works hard throughout – each playing multiple characters, some more successfully than others, requiring a conscious effort at times to figure out who’s who. We don’t get the opportunity to really know (or care about) any of them. The epic Dickens novel set in a British mining and manufacturing town during the industrial revoltuion, is the story of struggle – between workers and their masters, lonliness vs. love, and the cold reality of life vs. imagination of what might be. Noble themes to be sure, but attempts to effectively distill them all within the context of a cohesive theatrical production are just too big a stretch.
Both plays are limited productions. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Fitch you may want to move quickly to avoid missing a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As for Hard Times, on the other hand, the next production at The Pearl, The Subject was Roses starts in previews on April 9.
Editors Note: Mr. and Mrs. Fitch closed on April 4 and Hard Times ran through March 28, 2010.