Under the Gaslight
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 27, 2009
What a show Under the Gaslight must have been for our great-great-great grandparents and their contemporaries who may have seen it when it premiered in New York in 1867! The exciting story takes audiences from Delmonico's Restaurant to a squalid downtown tenement to the Police Court at the Tombs to a pier along the Hudson River to a railroad station near Long Branch, New Jersey—and it is outside that remote station that the play's most famous scene takes place, the one in which someone is tied to the railroad tracks by a heartless villain, the first occasion where that now-familiar method of would-be murder was put before the public. The scene is still quite thrilling, as we discover in Metropolitan Playhouse's revival of this otherwise mostly forgotten American classic.
Daly's originality in the railroad scene is not always matched elsewhere: his plot seems drawn mostly from the works of Charles Dickens, with a dash of Les Miserables thrown in for good measure. Its heroine is Laura Courtland, the angelic and guileless adopted daughter of a rich New York family (the kind of character Mary Pickford played so well in the silent melodramas beloved by the generations following Under the Gaslight's introduction). During its five increasingly harrowing acts, whose locations I have already outlined above, Laura goes from one tumultuous challenge to another: her "low" birth as a street urchin is revealed, jeopardizing her planned marriage to wealthy Ray Trafford; the unrelievedly villainous Byke, who claims to be her father, turns up out of nowhere to harass and threaten her; her former Fagin-like boss/protector Old Judas tracks her down; and when things get really scary, she is kidnapped and then dumped into the river to be drowned. (And all of this comes before the big climactic railroad scene.)
Daly's plotting has a kind of social conscience: in some ways, Under the Gaslight feels like a precursor to the eye-opening photography of Jacob Riis, revealing to its upscale audience the ugly reality of life in the slums as lived by the down-and-out Laura and Peachblossom, the earnest young woman (also a former victim of Old Judas) whom Laura takes in as servant and friend. Perhaps even more socially relevant is the character of Snorkey, who is a former Union soldier who lost an arm during the war and now struggles courageously to support himself despite the lack of veteran's benefits provided by the government he so loyally served. In celebrating these down-trodden but heroic ordinary folk, Daly bucked the trend of theatre of his day.
But for all its democratic American tendencies, Under the Gaslight in one important way feels most un-American, and that's in its insistence that someone born in less-than-aristocratic circumstances is somehow intrinsically deficient. Though we are meant to deplore Ray's behavior when he breaks his engagement with Laura after he discovers her true history, we are also meant to understand and empathize with it. Daly's ending reinforces the idea still further. In an age when the commonest of American men—Abraham Lincoln—had only recently been martyred in his effort to save his country, it seems surprising that such snobbery could also exist. Yet, apparently, it did.
Metropolitan Playhouse, as is their custom (and to their credit), does nothing to gloss over this in their revival of Under the Gaslight. We see the play as Daly wrote it, warts and all. The script's simple-mindedness throughout makes it quaint though never unplayable, but this is a production that's more notable for what it shows us about our theatrical/social history than for the quality of its language or dramaturgy. Metropolitan's intimate playing space prevents the re-creation of the spectacular effects that must have accompanied Daly's original production; director Michael Hardart and set designer Alex Roe meet the challenge mostly with alacrity, with the railroad scene working out the best. Costumer Sidney Fortner provides period-appropriate duds that serve the piece beautifully.
Hardart does seem to waver in places as to whether to treat the play as a serious melodrama or, postmodernly, as camp. J. M. McDonough as the villainous Byke and Lian-Marie Holmes as Peachblossom play the earnest two-dimensionality of their characters forthrightly, while Amanda Jones as virtuous Laura seems sometimes to be reaching for a psychological underpinning to her role that just isn't there—her Laura feels too modern to be the heroine of a melodrama. Also problematic is the work of Brad Fraizer, who is splendidly good-natured as Snorkey but never feels like the play's hero, which is what he turns out to be. A grand touch on the part of Hardart, though, is the use of the excellent Ralph Petrarca as a piano player who provides near-continuous accompaniment to the piece, in the manner of a silent movie score. (The music that he plays is uncredited; I picked up bits and pieces of many popular songs of the 19th century along with familiar pre-talkie chords and phrases.)
Metropolitan Playhouse is the place in New York where theatre-goers can explore our collective past; in the words of their mission, "discovering where we come from to better know who we are." Under the Gaslight is revelatory in many ways as an artifact of American drama and American life just after the Civil War. Who else gives us such a compelling opportunity to venture backward in time?