nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 5, 2009
The Contrast was written by Royall Tyler, a young Bostonian soldier-turned-lawyer, in the spring of 1787; the Constitution of the United States of America was drafted a few months later. Both say a great deal about the core values of the still-unborn nation whose inhabitants were beginning to call themselves Americans.
The "contrast" of Tyler's title is the one between Americans and Europeans. Tyler isn't bashful in his point of view, not a bit: the characters in his story who favor fancy European notions (fashion, gossip, art) are fools or worse; those who embrace American ideals (individualism, simplicity, directness) are the tale's heroes. Foremost among these is Jonathan, the "waiter" to a Colonel in General Washington's army, who is the prototype for the simple-but-sharp Yankee character that dominated American comedy for a very long time. But the Colonel himself (named, Sheridan-style, Henry Manly), and the young lady with whom Manly falls in love, Maria Van Rough, and her father, all embody the independent, homespun style of our young country. From them there is much to learn.
Indeed, I was truly surprised at how much of The Contrast feels as sound and verifiable as if it had been written yesterday. Take this bit from Manly's monologue in the center of the play:
Luxury is surely the bane of a nation: Luxury! which enervates both soul and body, by opening a thousand new sources of enjoyment, opens, also, a thousand new sources of contention and want: Luxury! which renders a people weak at home, and accessible to bribery, corruption, and force from abroad.
And then, in the very next sentence, the age of the play betrays itself:
When the Grecian states knew no other tools than the axe and saw, the Grecians were a great, a free, and a happy people.
Who says that America's so-called Culture Wars are new?
I should insert, now, some information about the play's plot, which is slight. It concerns this Colonel Manly, who has come to New York on business. While there, he visits his sister, Charlotte, and accidentally meets her friend Maria. Maria is betrothed to the foppish and deceitful Billy Dimple (whose very name is a lie; he is a member of the Von Dumpling family); Maria is very unhappy in her engagement to this man, who she has come to learn is shallow, callous, and insincere. Dimple also wants out of the arrangement, because he is stringing along two other girls, one of whom is Charlotte. The play sets up this state of affairs and then details how Maria and Manly are able to come together for an inevitable happy ending. Stylistically, it owes much to the comedies being presented during the same period in England...except, of course, that they didn't have characters like Jonathan in them. He's the purely American invention that Tyler bequeathed to the theatre; in the words of Arthur Hobson Quinn, editor of Representative American Plays:
[The Contrast] is our first comedy, and while its central theme is the contrast between native worth and affectation of foreign manners it is of especial significance as introducing to our stage in the character of Jonathan the shrewd yet uncultivated type of New England farmer which has since become known as the "Stage Yankee."
In the hands of Brad Fraizer, he becomes the delightful center of the comedy; the set pieces that involve Jonathan—one in which he describes an evening at the theatre and another in which he attempts to woo one of Dimple's maidservants—are unquestionably the highlights of the production.
Amanda Jones, as Charlotte, gives the other outstanding performance, embodying a young woman who is Jonathan's opposite (and who consequently gets her comeuppance at the hands of playwright Tyler). The ensemble is otherwise somewhat uneven, with worthy work coming from George C. Hosmer as Van Rough and Rob Skolits as Manly.
Director Alex Roe has chosen a stylized approach to both costume and set that forces the audience to imagine the trappings that are constantly being described in Tyler's script. It makes us listen, but it also feels distracting, particularly the more-or-less identical outfits assigned to the actors (sleeveless t-shirts and simple trousers or skirts).
Ultimately, though, The Contrast does speak for itself, and it speaks volumes about what at least one authentic American understood about the American character at its very inception. It's an invaluable artifact of our social and theatrical history as a result.