It is difficult to say whether Brecht has dated, whether he was never really all that good in the first place, or whether he is just very, very difficult to stage well. The Foundry Theatre’s recent production of Good Person of Szechwan was a revelation, but it leaves one wondering if any production by that excellent troupe would have been so. Atlantic’s high-end revival of The Threepenny Opera, on the other hand—this “opera for beggars” whose price of admission is surely keeping out the beggars—doesn’t have the sting of capitalist satire we are told was Brecht’s specialty.
Macheath (Michael Park), also known as Mack the Knife, now famous for renditions of his introductory song by Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, is a low-life stalking the streets of Victorian England. He spends most of his time with prostitutes and is suspected for the murder of Sloppy Sadie and the rape of Little Susie, but his friendship with police commissioner Tiger Brown (Rick Holmes) has kept him from the hangman’s noose. When he marries Polly (Laura Osnes), however, daughter of Peachum (F. Murray Abraham), a pseudo-mafioso who runs a beggars’ racket in London, the protective father flexes his might to get him executed. We hear from the prostitute Jenny (Sally Murphy) that Mack is “the last gentleman in London,” but this means little to Peachum, who claims “the world is mean, and man uncouth,” and that circumstances will not allow a heaven on earth.
The Threepenny Opera typically draws attention to its theatricality in order to startle us into disconnection and alienation; it is political, aggressive theater meant to inspire thinking instead of catharsis. But these tropes have become so fully absorbed into contemporary conventions that their effectiveness has dulled with time, and today the fourth wall is as likely to be smashed in a silly farce as it is in a radical polemic. What remains, then, is both narratively and intellectually unfulfilling, and the deus ex machina that concludes The Threepenny Opera does little to rattle our sense of the difference between theater and life. No doubt Brecht has done much to improve the way we theorize art, but it may be time for his own art to retire.
The Threepenny Opera runs through May 11th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 5 minutes. One intermission.