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Theater review: The Moors pokes fun at the Brontë sisters and English literary clichés

Written by
Helen Shaw

Jen Silverman's misfire The Moors does, in truth, take aim at an interesting target. This black comedy unfolds in the thick of the English literary landscape, deep in the territory of High Victorian imagination. It's a spoof on the Brontë sisters, who are (bless their corsets and side curls) ripe for it. Silverman likes their atmosphere, but she's not wild about the baked-in man-woman stuff, so she queers the sisters' Romantic style. While the playwright deploys the standard pseudo-Gothic elements (governesses, attics, hectic lusts, etc.), she uses them for a different set of small-r romantic fantasies—ones in which boys are forcibly sidelined.

The plot's a kind of Victorian gumbo. The stern, rather terrifying Agatha (Linda Powell) has sent for a governess, but when Emilie (Chasten Harmon) arrives at Agatha’s spooky estate, she finds no child to care for. There is, however, an unstable sister Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), a grumpy housemaid Marjory (Hannah Cabell) and somebody wicked has been stashed upstairs. Silverman wants to invoke the mystery of the titular Yorkshire fens, where the soul can be “hewn,” as Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “in a wild workshop.” But the play keeps sabotaging itself. When it tries to be mystical, its jokiness undoes it; when it tries to be warm and silly, the story's fog of cruelty chills the air. The play's lowest moments are—as is often the case these days—forced injections of magic realism. The house's dog (Andrew Garman) has fallen in love with a moor hen (Teresa Avia Lim), and the two anguish about her desire to fly away. Get it? This is such lazy symbolism. If I could wave a wand and make one dramatic trend disappear, it would be all such junk-grade whimsy. Let's put it this way: if an animal is talking in your piece, you better be goddamn Bulgakov.

Silverman's best work is in her imagined setting, a Gormenghast that folds in on itself like an Escher drawing. Her script calls for a strange house in which all the rooms are somehow always the parlor, and the maid keeps switching identities. Since she's written an atmospheric, a better production might bring out more elusive qualities. But the Playwrights Realm version isn't giving us the best look at the piece. Despite some truly great actors in the cast (Huppuch, Garman, Cabell), the tonally confused performances move at a crawl. (Huppuch alone creates a performance so insane that she makes her scenes seem dangerous.)

Director Mike Donahue has also sawn through the central pillar of Silverman's approach. The playwright is playing the juxtaposition game: the play needs a stuffy Victorian sitting room, so the Brontë's genre can be undercut with modern language and the frankly bizarre. But Donahue opts for a stark po-mo set—black astroturf, a looming black plywood wall. Nothing anachronistically “modern” comes as a surprise in such a stark space. Just this one scenic gesture, and the whole world comes un-Moored.

Duke on 42nd Street (Off Broadway). By Jen Silverman. Directed by Mike Donahue. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Mar 25. Click here for tickets.

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