nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 16, 2006
What makes a play American? There’s any number of obvious answers: it was written in America, it was written by a writer from America, it’s about America and Americans—but is there something more to it? Is there some inherently American subject matter, something stylistic that marks a text by its origins? The Contrast, by Royall Tyler, is the first play ever to lay claim to that description, and if I were to use it as a test case, I would have to say yes.
First performed in 1787, The Contrast was the first play written by a native-born American writer that was ever performed in public by a company of professional actors. In rough outline of the plot it’s a comedy of manners much like what you might have seen on British stages of the period. But the particular combination of characters, the focus on relative social positions and national origins of those characters (the “contrasts” of the play’s title), and the moral of this particular story do seem to display an American sensibility that is still recognizable to a modern viewer, or at least this modern viewer. Tyler’s writing is a little rough around the edges and a few plot strands get tied up with unseemly haste, but the joys of The Contrast are in watching that American sensibility, and those American characters, be born.
The piece is set in post-Revolutionary War New York. Miss Charlotte Manly, a fashionable young thing, and her uncle’s wealthy ward, Letitia, have nothing better to do all day than to flirt and to gossip. The most particular target of their gossip is their friend Maria Van Rough, who has recently become engaged to Dimple, a fop and man-about-town who has also been paying attentions to both Charlotte and Letitia—Charlotte for her beauty and Letitia for her dowry. Maria is no more interested in Dimple than Dimple is in Maria, but he is the son of an old family friend, and Maria’s father insists on the marriage, thinking it to be a solid financial alliance. As a dutiful daughter, Maria determines to go through with wedding a man she despises; Dimple, meanwhile, is doing his best to try to force Maria to break things off so he doesn’t have to do it himself. When Charlotte’s brother Henry, a Revolutionary War veteran who is as stolid and serious as Charlotte is flirtatious and gossipy, arrives in town on business and falls in love with Maria, the stage is set for the usual round of romantic intrigues, complications, and resolutions (at least for Maria and Henry; unusually for these sorts of comedies, there aren’t enough men to go around, and not everyone ends up ready to be wed).
There’s also a very funny subplot involving Dimple’s well-groomed manservant, Jessamy; Manly’s rustic farmboy of a valet, Jonathan; and an Irish maid named Jenny. Trying to woo Jenny himself, Jessamy thinks that if he can trick the plain-spoken and socially graceless Jonathan into courting Jenny clumsily, his own more polished attentions will be sure to win her favor. And in the end, honesty, sincerity, and marriage-for-love win out over old-world manners, ancestral familial ties, and marriage-for-wealth—and what could be more American than that?
All very familiar up to this point—but what makes it different is the precision and specificity with which Tyler lays out the relative class positions, national origins, and places in the social framework of his characters. Although Manly, Charlotte, Dimple, Maria, and Van Rough are all of the upper crust, there are clear distinctions of attitude, opinion, habit, dialect, and costume among them, so that the Revolutionary soldier is strikingly different from the more European-styled gentleman, and equally different from the Dutch burgher (or at least, that’s what I think Van Rough is meant to be). For example, Manly, the simply-dressed and passionate veteran who embraces the character of his new country, stands in striking contrast to Dimple, the garishly dressed fop with disdain for anyone who has not been to Europe.
Director Peter Bloch has underscored these distinctions with dialect, giving the characters a range of accents. This takes a little getting used to, but I think it’s ultimately an effective way of emphasizing Tyler’s structure. Manly, Charlotte, Letitia, and Maria speak with a lightly British-inflected English (to a modern ear, anyway); Van Rough has a hint of what I think is a Dutch accent; Jenny is Irish; and Dimple has an affected lisp. The most striking—and contrasting—accents belong to Jonathan and Jessamy: Jonathan’s “Yankee” accent could perhaps still be heard in parts of rural Maine, while Jessamy slips between a Cockney English (when in private or addressing the audience) and an exaggerated imitation of Dimple’s tones. Gail Cooper-Hecht’s richly detailed costumes and wigs also emphasize the social positions visually.
The acting ensemble is uniformly solid. I was especially taken by Cate Campbell as Charlotte and Matthew Cowles as Van Rough, both of whom sparkle in roles that could easily come off as a bit shallow or selfish. Jesse May is also endearingly conniving as the smooth-tongued Jessamy.
The Contrast is an important piece of American theatrical history—but it also remains a charming and thoroughly enjoyable American play.