nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
November 14, 2006
The trick to enjoying Great Expectations is how to manage your own. I'm referring not to Dickens's literary masterpiece itself, but to the adaptation currently on offer at the Lucille Lortel, which gamely, if ungainly, straddles two worlds.
Produced by TheatreworksUSA, Great Expectations is intended primarily to be accessible to and appropriate for kids ages ten and up. However, boasting as it does such stars as Kathleen Chalfant (whose stage appearances are not to be missed) and Christian Campbell (who has a significant following in the realm of independent film), and directed by the talented and popular Will Pomerantz, the production also garners the attention of theatergoers above and beyond the grammar school set.
Ms. Havisham—the abandoned-at-the-altar-bride who, in the many subsequent decades, has not lived (in any meaningful sense of the word; her sufferings, in fact, come from a life with too much meaning)—is one of literature's most captivating creations and her story has yet to find its definitive stage version. Thus, it is adventurous (and understandable) that Chalfant would seize the opportunity to play the Lady-creature. And her Miss H. is a creepy thing simply because she defies all the interpretive choices one might expect. Seeing little difference between herself and Estella—the eye-catching and icy girl who is being developed as Ms. Havisham 2.0—Chalfant's Havisham is in some ways more beautiful and radiant than her adopted daughter, while retaining all the joie-de-vivre of an obituary.
Her interpretation is limited only by Bathsheba Doran's over-efficient script which, to its credit and its detriment, is so crystal clear, that there often seems nothing to it (in both senses). It's not that the book has been dumbed-down for younger audiences, but I do feel like they/we are being protected. Something in this saga of romance, risk, and regret—of ambitious young Pip who becomes enamored of Estella and, inevitably then, a lifestyle that is stations above his own—has been sedated; this telling seems to say: "this happened to one young man, not anyone you know, and certainly not anyone involved in this play, but do take care that this doesn't happen to you."
Perhaps I am just speaking from the perspective of someone of a certain age who's willingly and enthusiastically come to the theatre with an attention span that can reasonably be asked to last longer than 80 minutes (the running time of this production). But then again, I'm not your target audience for children's theatre. And in Doran's defense, really, how easy is it to adapt both faithfully AND interestingly a Dickens novel in such a short amount of stage time?
Pomerantz's production is of a piece with the script. Carol Bailey's set (like her costumes), though smart and semi-attractive, seems almost specifically designed to be packed up and thrown into a van by the actors as they burn rubber to the next middle school. The sweeping melodramatic score by Michael Picton for whatever reason does not complement the stage picture, but further highlights the disparity between the high calibre of on- and off-stage talent and the unsettling economy with which they tell this would-be epic tale.
In addition to Chalfant, the cast, by and large, is a good one. The character of Pip—who, due to his frightfully high demands of himself and those who represent his humble origins, becomes quite unlikable for a spell—is, in Campbell's hands, ever sympathetic and appealing. Paul Niebanck, who plays among others Pip's brother-in-law and ersatz foster father, imbues the earnest blacksmith with such a sweet dignity, I felt half-protective of / half-embarrassed by him myself as he bore the brunt of Pip's noveau riche disdain. And Kristen Bush gives a more effective performance as the hauntingly unconflicted Estella than when she doubles as Pip's bitchy sister who, muffin hat over eyes, puts one in mind of a cockney janitress/soothsayer.
This production will, in short, probably disappoint any adult who is psyched to see Chalfant in a role that promises to be a tour-de-force. Conversely, Theatreworks USA's Great Expectations will and perhaps should spoil rotten its younger audiences for many children's theatre productions to come.