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The Alchemist

  • Theater, Classical
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Alchemist
Photograph: Courtesy Carol RoseggThe Alchemist

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Adam Feldman

Theater is a confidence game: The actors’ unshaking commitment to the untruths they are telling can hook an audience on even the most dubious of lines. This sustained bluff goes a long way in Red Bull Theater’s production of The Alchemist, freely adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy about frauds and the dupes who love them. 

The Alchemist reunites Hatcher with some of the principal movers behind Red Bull’s hit 2017 production of The Government Inspector: not just director Jesse Berger, but also set designer Alexis Distler, who contributes another handsome bilevel playing space, and costumer Tilly Grimes, who fashions a beguiling succession of outfits and disguises. Retooled for modern audiences, Hatcher’s version of the play is stuffed with silly characters, anachronistic jokes and opportunities for broad physical comedy by the actors: Berger’s hams keep things moving through six doors and one revolving wall, all in frequent use. 

“I fart at thee!” says one swindler to another at the start of the show—in a line that comes straight from Jonson’s text—and the cast is a gas. Manoel Felciano plays the London butler Face, who uses his absent master’s house as the base for schemes to bilk pigeons from their ducats. He is joined by two partners in crime: the louche Subtle, played with grandiose ooze by Reg Rogers (any actor can draw out a vowel, but no one draws out consonants so well), and the loose Dol Common, played by Jennifer Sánchez, who adds feminine wiles to the package and delivers bawdy-awdy-awdy in a skintight gold get-up. The running metatheatrical joke is that these three are always improvising little plays, pretending to be scientists, doctors, clergymen or whoever else suits the scenario and intended audience at hand. 

While these kissing cozeners are entertaining, the real comic meat is in their targets. Jacob Ming-Trent is delightful as the sybaritic Sir Epicure Mannon, whose lust gets the better even of his greed, and the great Carson Elrod brings dynamite comic invention to his portrayal of a dull-minded wastrel; Stephen DeRosa is a Dutch treat as a blond-bobbed Puritan from Holland, and Nathan Christopher brings charmingly dim sunniness to the role of a love-struck tobacconist. Rounding out the cast with gusto are Louis Mustillo, Allen Tedder and Teresa Ava Lim. Berger and Hatcher put all of them through their fast paces, disguising some structural weaknesses in the play itself; the promise of the first act isn’t quite met in the second, when the threads of the story wind up looping into knots. It’s a strange amalgam: a shaggy-dog farce. But even when The Alchemist loses the plot, its energetic plotters are fun to watch.

The Alchemist. Theatre Row (Off Broadway). By Ben Jonson. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Jesse Berger. With Reg Rogers, Manoel Felciano, Jennifer Sánchez. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission. 

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Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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