nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 12, 2006
Matthew Burnett's play Theophilus North tells the story of a 30-year-old man (named Theophilus North) who decides, in the summer of 1926, to quit his job as a teacher in order to find adventure. Somewhat poor planning results in Theophilus, bound for Europe or somewhere similarly exotic, becoming stranded in Newport, Rhode Island. Here, attempting to earn passage out, he gets involved taking a variety of odd jobs, such as reading aloud to a rich old man whose eyesight is failing or tutoring French to a very embarrassed teenage boy. Of course, Theophilus's odd jobs become just the adventure he needs, and as the play concludes our hero has decided that the life of a writer is what he will pursue.
He also decides:
THEOPHILUS: I want to be surrounded. By...a Constellation. Of people. Made up of eighteen stars. I...I want to have nine male friends—
MAN 3: three older than yourself,
MAN 1: three younger,
MAN 2: and three of your own age.
THEOPHILUS: And I want to have nine female friends—
WOMAN 3: three older,
WOMAN 2: and of the same age.
Now, this struck me as an odd place for a coming-of-age tale to end; don't folks usually realize they need to make, as Sondheim said, children or art?
Ah, but Theophilus North is no coming-of-age tale at all, though Burnett and his director Carl Forsman seem to think it is. Dig beneath its faintly whimsical surface and you'll find the musings (justifications?) of an old man, Thornton Wilder, looking back on a life that turned out wiser but perhaps lonelier than planned. One of Wilder's novels is indeed the basis for this play, one written at the end of the great writer's life; it is told in flashback by a much older Theophilus, remembering a turning point from the vantage point of many decades later. The difference between Wilder's character and Burnett's is the difference between being 75 and being 25, which is to say the difference between knowing too much and knowing too little. The sweet naivete of the Theophilus in this play bumps rather nastily against the compromised spirit who decides he won't love just one person but surround himself with a constellation of 18 instead.
Burnett's script is not without its charm, but it tries to out-Wilder Wilder, which is a serious mistake. Burnett has a whole slew of inanimate objects—trees, boats, houses, etc.—speak directly to the audience, anthropomorphized. It's an attempt to recall the ephemeral, stark style of Wilder's masterpiece Our Town; only Our Town is actually about the ephemeral, stark nature of life, whereas Theophilus North is about other stuff. Burnett would have done better to find his own style rather than try to appropriate Wilder's here. By the time the ferry boat between Newport and Saunderstown introduced herself in Act 2, Scene 4, the audience I was in had started to laugh out loud at this device.
Forsman's staging is on the plodding side, and most of the actors employed here—notably Giorgio Litt in the title role—give performances that are cheery but one-note. The exception is Geddeth Smith, whose main character is the cantankerous old doctor who hires Theophilus to read to him. In the scenes in which we meet this fellow, the play comes alive.
Theophilus North is entertaining enough viewing to awaken an interest in Wilder's original novel; it did that for me, anyway. But it's only a pale reminder of the three great works that Wilder himself wrote for the stage (Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Matchmaker); the thought that came to both my companion and myself, over and over as we watched this show, was that if Wilder had intended this story to be done on stage, he'd surely have put it there in the first place.