The plague has reached London, and a gentleman abandons his home to the care of his butler (Manoel Felciano), who wastes no time in enlisting the help of two charlatans (Reg Rogers and Jennifer Sánchez). Together, they will relieve the neighborhood of their gold through a series of outrageous promises. To a knight (Jacob Ming-Trent), they guarantee riches; to a gambler (Carson Elrod), luck; and to a humble tobacconist, (Nathan Christopher), love. Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a superb comedy, and the current revival by Red Bull Theater, in an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, mostly lives up to its rich potential.
First things first: though The Alchemist is framed by the plague, references to COVID-19 are few. I can imagine the temptation to topicality was strong, but the decision to exclude current events from the narrative is the right one. In the middle of our pandemic, and without the benefit of hindsight, The Alchemist has little ability to offer anything but shallow parallels. What it can offer, however, is broad, rapid-fire, almost farcical comedy, a relief from rather than a reflection of our own plague.
The strengths of this production are its actors, who commit without a hint of irony to the histrionics their roles demand. Sometimes, this entails embarrassing and frankly out-of-date cultural references—there is, for example, the slow-motion dodge from The Matrix, and there’s an extended riff on Goldfinger that involves full-gold dress, makeup, and hair as well as a musical number. At the performance I attended, the latter was greeted with dead silence, and Hatcher has an unfortunate tendency to indulge these sorts of anachronisms.
Still, even in its worst moments, the actors never waver. Ming-Trent is a delight as a lascivious braggart who, perhaps in a nod to his recent performance as Falstaff, claims to own armor “worn by Jesus at the Battle of Agincourt.” Rogers, the ostensible ringleader, practically spits half his lines, and Christopher, who appears no older than fifteen, is more or less the genuine article, ambling through a love-hungry haze with a dopey, toothless smile. Together, they almost tear the hinges off the doors. Less Hatcher, more Jonson, I say, but otherwise, an excellent production.
The Alchemist runs through December 19th at New World Stages. 340 West 50th Street New York, NY. 2 hours. One intermission.