at the Experimental Theatre through Sunday
AS THE final scenes of James L. Dickson's Monmouth went their way, this reviewer was, at length, able to articulate the queasy sensation which had been plaguing him for the bulk of the evening. It was all like being locked into the fifth reprise of an ineluctably boring family argument: the grand issues reduced, more or less, to formalistic gabble, the verbal talent still in play diverted to scoring of debater's points, and the participants--persons deserving at least of interest, if not of affection--making themselves generally intolerable. I was, of course, merely imprisoned in that bituminous vacancy which men call the Experimental Theatre of the Loeb Drama Center, sharing space with some remarkably brave young actors.
The initial claim which the characters in Monmouth make on an audience's attention is no function of Mr. Dickson's writing. It is, rather, a natural by-product of his choice of materials: social and political traumatics in the Court of Charles II. Historical subjects are by now the traditional matter of Phyllis Anderson Prize plays, of which this effort is one, sharing an award with James Lardner's Come the Revolution. There is, or has been, a certain sense in this tradition, for historical references can lend any play a certain measure of unearned dramatic scale. Such loans, however, are called in early, and the courtiers and courtesans of Monmouth spend fast and free. The play, with all its wigged aristocrats and highborn themes (I noted free will versus determinism, the ambiguous bond between father and son, and the interpenetration of civilization and savagery--all before I stopped Counting) runs straight downhill with the mechanical insistence of a daytime serial. Can a simple lady-in-waiting find happiness with the monarch of all England? Can Jim of Monmouth ever fathom his father's love? Does the King really have syphillis?
It should be noted here that most of the responsibility of Monmouth's condition must rest with its author, and his director, Mr. Christopher Hart, whose static stagings managed to convince me that the Ex could be made to look even more cramped and confining than it actually is. Some of their actors do some notable work. André Bishop is genuinely and broadly amusing as the Duke of York, while Robert Edgar almost manager to suggest substantial complexity in the role of Charles II. He manages a nice twist on the King's foppish manner, turning it on for public scenes and off in more private moments. As Monmouth himself, Timothy Clark works hard and reads intelligently (when he is given intelligent lines to read), but is unable to convey either age or weight. He, and Susan Yakutis, who performs more than creditably as Nell Gwynn, are perhaps the primary victims of the text's shortcomings. Often they seem in danger of choking on strings of quaint expletives. "Bloody" and "God's breath" got a good deal of special attention. The author's attention to the special diction of period and character is, in fact, generally insufficient.
The costumes, by Marian Moore and Susie Marsh, go a long way toward salvaging some period sense, now suggesting an elegance rare to Ex productions. They are, however, undone by a zipper. The settings, credited to Mr. Hart, are downright tacky. I will remember for some time the bed-chamber of Charles II, prominently decorated with what I take to be his priceless white hat-rack.