nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
September 9, 2010
Penny Penniworth is an absolute delight—a plucky, piquant, pitch-perfect pastiche of Dickens. (And yes, that bit of alliteration was a deliberate paean to Penny's penchant for wordplay).
The playwright, Chris Weikel, clearly takes his inspiration from Great Expectations, with a dash of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, and Hard Times thrown in. Penny is a modest young woman of respectable yet humble origin, who is cast penniless out into the world after the death of her father, Mr. Hapless Penniworth. Moving to London with her mother, Penny must somehow find a way they can support themselves "though we cannot work, for we are but women," as she frequently reminds us. With the help of the family solicitor, the ancient Mr. Bunting (brother of the other, dead Mr. Bunting, whom, it's hinted, was rather friendly with Penny's mother), Penny finds employment as companion to eccentric Miss Havasnort. Miss Havasnort's been in mourning these past two decades for her dead fiancee, the deceased Mr. Bunting, though by now she can't exactly remember who or what she's mourning—only she loves wearing black and scaring little children. Just when Penny seems settled in her new life, she suddenly acquires a small fortune through an anonymous benefactor...and many madcap adventures ensue.
Weikel does for Dickens what The 39 Steps does for Hitchcock. [It should be noted that Weikel did it first; Penny Penniworth pre-dates The 39 Steps by several years.] He pays giddy, tongue-in-cheek homage to his source material, and as much as he makes fun of Dickensian conventions, he clearly knows and loves the novels and their era. Fans of Victorian literature—or anyone who's ever had to study it in school, or watch a BBC costume drama—will appreciate the play's many allusions, as in the masked ball scene, where Penny runs into Ebenezer Scrooge, the owner of the Old Curiosity Shoppe, and Cathy from Wuthering Heights.
Like Dickens, Weikel paints a vivid portrait of Victorian London, and creates a series of memorable, eccentric characters. Maybe because this is a parody, he doesn't quite reach Dickens' depth of characterization (Miss Havasnort, for all her morbidity, isn't nearly as weird as her Dickensian equivalent, Miss Havisham), but he comes pretty close in most cases. And he goes Dickens one better with some postmodern, gender-bending subplotting.
Like The 39 Steps, Penny Penniworth uses just four actors to play a cast of seeming thousands. Two men (Christopher Borg and Jason O'Connell) and two women (Jamie Heinlein and Ellen Reilly) portray all the pseudo-Dickensian characters in all their eccentric glory, and director Mark Finley orchestrates the action so cleverly that you feel the bustle of Victorian London with just four people on stage.
The cast revel in their juicy roles. Borg's jollily seedy Mr. Hapless Penniworth evokes Jim Broadbent at his costume drama best, while his prim, sexually-frustrated Mrs. Penniworth suggests Judi Dench by way of Margaret Rutherford. As the dashing villain "young Rupert Stryfe, heir to the house of Stryfe," Jason O'Connell recalls every plummy-voiced, over-enunciated anti-hero ever on the BBC, while his stuttering Mr. Punchnose honors a long-line of Dickensian eccentrics with secret lives. Ellen Reilly punctuates Miss Havasnort's melancholy languor with some unexpected sass, while she makes the elderly Mr. Bunting, who's always bent slightly backward, look like a Victorian etching come to life. Each of these actors brings precise, comic individuality to their myriad other roles—from street urchins to market vendors to pirates.
Jamie Heinlein is wondrous as Penny, imbuing her with all the innocent, plucky charm of a Victorian ingenue while never once seeming arch. She also doubles as Dump, the evil henchman to Penny's mysterious benefactor. The scene where Dump kidnaps Penny is a comic tour-de-force, thanks to Heinlein's acting and the clever costuming designed by House of Goody, which features sweeping taffeta capes that can instantly transform into skirts.
If anything, you suspect that after so many incarnations of Penny Penniworth (it's been seen numerous times since 2002), the cast has grown just a mite too comfortable, a little too familiar with what's going to happen next. Every punchline pops, every gag lands, but sometimes, there's just a soupcon of spontaneity missing. Penny's "self-kidnapping," for example, is a moment of comic genius and yet, for a second, as she was transforming her skirt into a cape and back again for the umpteenth time, it felt that Heinlein was anticipating the joke too soon.
This is only a minor quibble. In all, Penny Penniworth is that great rarity—a near-perfect, harmonious triumph of exquisite comic writing, acting, direction, and design. Go see it—you'll have a Dickens of a time.