Humor in the theatre depends on timing, timing on confidence, confidence on applause. An actor who misses his first laugh is likely to strain for the next--which is sure failure. Only a quarter of the Loeb's seats were filled for the opening of Eastward Ho, and the audience didn't warm up until the second act. With a bigger audience, a drunk or excited or happy one, the current production might be wonderful Last night it was flat.
Even with a full house, however, Anthony Graham-White's direction would make heavy demands on the cast. He has pared down this Jonson-Chapmen-Marston comedy of London city life, but the dialogue still includes numerous now-unintelligible jokes and allusions. And he has introduced remarkably little stage business to maintain the pace where the wit is lost. In short, Graham-White relies on the charm of his actors to make the production live.
William Buckingham's merry set proclaims the play a pageant. An inspired Touchstone could have made it one If, in his first soliloquy, he had won the audience, the runnings about of the next two hours would have had coherence. But Peter Charles Johnson didn't have the necessary flair. He was convincing as an honest craftsman, but no more.
This may have been a matter of interpretation. For even as Touchstone dispenses justice at the close of the play--like a citizen equivalent of the Prince or Duke at the end of so many of Shakespeare's--the golden aura he tries to cast over the proceedings is belied by Quicksilver's hypocritical reformation. Still, without a winning Touchstone, the play wobbles.
Much the same might be said of Quicksilver. And like Johnson, Harry Smith isn't magical. He doesn't jump cues the way Johnson does, but he tries too hard to please. Too many of his speeches conclude with a flourish and a raised eyebrow, as if to say, "applause, please." He seemed to be following some prearranged pattern of smiles and announcements, not riding his whim.
Eric Bregman as Sir Petronal Flash hadn't so obviously choreographed his part, but he never relaxed in it. With his oversexed wife for a foil, he should have been able to bring down the house with a glance.
And as for his lady, she did protest too much. Norma Levin never perfected the eloquent lapses that show Gertrude a fool. She pouted in all directions. She botched the exit speech where she demands her betrothed come to bed with her. And after so graciously kneeling to ask her father's forgiveness in the last act, she was in too much of a hurry to have Gertrude run away with herself in her delighted confession, and lost the humor of the scene.
It was Gary S. Zukav who saved the show. As Security, the usurer, he got the first laughs of the evening, and continued to get them until the very end. He knew when to walk quickly and when slowly, when to speak loud, when soft. He knew to the millisecond how much time to leave between a matter-of-fact "I'm a cuckold" and a startled "what!"
Zukav's performance was a parody, but of a real person, not of an actor trying to be funny. Security never stepped out of character. No nervous undergraduate seemed to peek from behind the persona, asking that we remember that he is not taking himself seriously. Zukav played his fool wholeheartedly.
Graham-White deserves credit for the restraint of the whole production. Zukav didn't need to mock himself, but none of the less capable actors was asked to either. Graham-White knew how to sophisticate his show, and he has made David Zalkind's dramatic monologue as Slitgut a farcical interlude legitimately set off from the rest of the play, and, by contrast of style setting off the virtues of the cast he had to work with.