by Samuel L. Leiter
Last autumn, New York theatergoers had the rare opportunity to witness Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine; now, another of that infrequently revived Elizabethan playwright’s dramas of grandiose aspiration, Doctor Faustus, is available on a local stage. I had some reservations about Tamburlaine, but, when compared to this uninspired, ploddingly paced, dully designed, and weakly acted production directed by Andrei Belgrader for the Classic Stage Company, it seems, as someone once said in another context, “Hyperion to a satyr.”
Belgrader’s staging uses his and David Bridel’s shredded adaptation in which Marlowe’s language is modernized, scenes are radically rewritten, iceberg-sized chunks are deleted, characters are excised or conflated, and, among other liberties, Faustus’s servant Wagner (Walker Jones) becomes a winkingly self-conscious chorus.
Chris Noth (Sex and the City) struggles unsuccessfully to embody the eponymous scholar, a Marlovian superman so hungry for power and world domination he finds philosophy, medicine, law, or theology insufficient for his goals; disregarding the Good Angel (Carmen M. Herlihy) he abides by the Evil one (Geoffrey Owens) and finds his answer in magic. Faustus ignores all warnings and, by signing a deed in blood, sells his soul to Lucifer (Jeffrey Binder) to maintain his power for 24 years. During that time the prince of darkness’s servant, Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier, The Good Wife), will be his helpmeet so that he may “live in all voluptuousness” and “be emperor of the world.” Finally, realizing that his reach has exceeded his grasp, Faustus fails to save his blasted soul.
The play is filled with opportunities for fanciful theatrics, including magic tricks (which reportedly made Orson Welles’s 1937 production memorable) and comedy, but the CSC production, despite occasional flourishes such as masks and puppets, is so flatfooted and pedestrian, its effects so cheesy, its comedy so forced, and its acting so shallow, that you need the fortitude of Jove to keep your eyes from spinning out of their sockets. Marlowe’s original contains a great deal of clownish tomfoolery, but Belgrader places so much emphasis on it that the title might as well be Doctor Faustus: The Farce. For a small example of how painfully unfunny it is, consider that Marlowe’s foolish Ralph has been renamed Dick (Ken Cheeseman) apparently so that sophomoric jokes can be made at his name’s expense.
As so often in today’s budget-conscious Off Broadway classical revivals, everyone except the two leads plays multiple roles or participates in ensemble scenes. But if you’re going to go that route, you’d better be sure your cast is versatile enough to make more of their character changes than simply offering broad cartoons with exaggerated voices. What’s worse is that the leads here, Noth and Grenier, both respected actors, are out of their depths.
Grenier’s relatively short stature is underlined by an ugly, ruff-collared, nearly floor-length, brown medieval gown (the unimpressive costumes are by Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger) that looks nothing like the friar’s robes Marlowe calls for; he looks and acts about as evil as a Devil Dog. In one of many missteps, Belgrader allows Mephistopheles to play with audience members during part of the Seven Deadly Sins sequence, either at their seats or by actually drawing them onto the stage; one turns out to be a plant from the company itself. Such clichéd fourth wall-breaking shtick is neither clever nor amusing enough to warrant its inclusion. At the performance I saw, an embarrassed woman pulled from her first-row seat never returned for Act II, nor did the people sitting next to her (others defected as well). Audiences pay to be audiences, not actors.
As Doctor Faustus, Chris Noth looks authoritative but lacks the vocal, interpretive, and visceral potency required for this classical role. Belgrader’s staging doesn’t help, especially when he has Faustus face upstage to deliver his famous “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships” speech about Helen of Troy (Marina Lazzarato, who does the scene nude).
Doctor Faustus is a hell of a difficult play; perhaps only a pact with the devil could make it work.
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through July 12
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).