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By an artistically superb interpretation of an extremely complex and difficult tragedy. "He Who Gets Slapped," the Theatre Guild has contributed what is probably the most consistently excellent revival of a season that has already witnessed Moliere, Shaw, and Shakespeare.
Leonid Andreyev's play is difficult to produce because of its resemblance to the Scandinavian drama, especially of Strinberg, which, if not handled with great finesse, can all too easily collapse into a conglomeration of heroics and absurd fantasy. In his contemporary Gorki, the intellectual depression around 1900 produced revolutionary ideas; in Andreyev it resulted in the almost morbid gloom of such works as "The Red Laugh."
A subtle and often confusing play, "He Who Gets Slapped" is, essentially, both tragedy and fantasy, and its current production has attempted to emphasize both details. Despite the program's announcement of a "new version" by Judith Guthrie, the present production varies little from the original: it has been slightly condensed and many bit part extras have been added to accent the circus atmosphere rather than to develop the plot. Tyrone Guthrie's imaginative setting--one large room heaped with stage paraphernalia--also increases the effect.
"He Who Gets Slapped" still revolves around its tragic hero, an intellectual and philosopher who has been driven into the anonymity of a circus clown by a pupil who achieved fame by popularizing his ideas--and has an illegitimate son by his wife. John Abbott, making his debut on the American stage, is highly successful in this difficult role; although his portrayal of "Funny" is probably more dashing than was that of Henry Travers in the Theatre Guild's original 1922 version, his development of both the man's embitterment and pathos is remarkable.
Beatice Pearson, ingenue of "The Mermaids Singing," cleverly depicts the childlike charm and shallowness of Consuela, which partially cause the conflict in "He Who Gets Slapped" and end in her death as well as that of "Funny."
Although almost light-hearted by comparison with Andreyev's other works, "He Who Gets Slapped" is a sombre and moody play; as is often true of tragedy, it is reflective and can easily be condemned for dragging by a theatre goer searching after bright lights and gaiety. fps
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