Actors Theatre of Louisville welcomed legendary former producing director Jon Jory home for the company’s fiftieth anniversary season with his new adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic picaresque novel “Tom Jones.” Directed by Jory, “Tom Jones” opened last night in the Bingham Theatre and runs through December 8.
It’s fitting that Jory, under whose leadership Actors Theatre became the Tony Award-winning institution that it is, returns for the golden anniversary with a new play. Jory’s been on a tear through the Jane Austen catalog for the last several years, staging his adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” at Actors Theatre (“Emma” and “Persuasion” have gone up elsewhere, too), but this time he went further back in Brit-lit history to the book commonly recognized as the first English novel.
On stage, “Tom Jones” is a frothy, funny romp through the backyards and bedchambers of the English countryside and London’s snobby salons. And like the eponymous hero, the play packs plenty of charm, but not always enough to overcome its weaknesses.
Jory does an admirable job of streamlining Fielding’s expansive novel down to the necessities for a fast-paced two-hour show, but the reliance on narrators makes the episodic story feel a bit fractured. And though Fielding’s playful language is wickedly funny and inventive, and the scenarios sufficiently comic already, Jory’s layering of silly Monty Python-esque gags over the text is often gratuitous.
Fielding’s romantic comedy tells the story of a foundling boy adopted and raised by a wealthy country squire. The boy grows into a brave and honest young man whose sexual appetites land him in numerous scrapes and dramas at home and on the road before he finally wins the hand of his lifelong love Sophia, the well-born daughter of the neighboring lord.
Tom’s not really a cad, though, he’s more of a scamp – a gorgeous, enthusiastic puppy who can’t help but hump all the furniture in the room. (Overheard in the lobby: “He puts the ‘sex’ in Middlesex.”) Played with appealing good nature by Drigan Lee, Tom tries to be good but often fails, though he never loses sight of his goal to marry his true love Sophia (Maren Bush). Lee and Bush enjoy great chemistry, and their scenes together are a touching, sincere respite from the bed-hopping and foolishness around them.
The cast is brimming with versatile comic talent, including Robyn Cohen (Wes Anderson completists will recognize her from Team Zissou), playing the lusty local wench Molly who seduces Tom and carries on an affair with him that may or may not have resulted in an illegitimate child, and the haughty, fashionable Lady Bellaston, whom she portrays with a genius, alien bird-like chirpiness that stands in stark contrast to the earnest country aristocrats she entertains in London, like Mrs. Fitzpatrick (another Tom conquest played with winking dignity by Alex Tavares).
Actors Theatre veteran V.C. Heidenreich roars across the stage as Sophia’s father Squire Western, the landed gentry version of a good ol‘ boy, and Matt Citron shines as the odious hypocrite Blifil (Tom’s cousin and rival for Sophia’s affections) and the mincing Lord Fellamar. Alex Podulke and Greg Wood likewise switch personas with grace and wit, allowing a relatively compact cast to fully populate Fielding’s sprawling road trip story.
The round Bingham Theatre, with its many access points, allows the play to maintain a brisk exit/entrance pace. It’s hard work getting all of those people in and out of each other’s beds. But Tom Burch’s set must be minimal to allow it, and so we miss any visual cues that would signal the rolling English countryside and the tight opulence of London’s fashionable rooms, one of the chief pleasures of the film adaptations of these early British comedies of manners.
The show does deliver eye-candy in the form of Marcia Dixcy Jory’s sumptuous costumes, as intricate and indulgent as a period rom-com demands. But these indulgent details make some of the cheaper-looking gags, like actors galloping stick-horses around the stage while decked out in Dixcy Jory’s gorgeous gowns, particularly jarring. Sometimes, the manic comic touches work (narrator declares a character dies, said character dead-drops to the floor; any scene built around a bird), but others, like having an unattractive female inn-keeper played by a man, feel completely out of place. In a shoestring, shabby-chic production, they would be charming empty calories. Here, tossing in anachronisms (like “hook you up” and finger-quotes) for laughs tastes like fake sweetener.
The show ends with a celebratory group dance that comes out of nowhere to punctuate the true ending (spoiler: the lovers kiss! all is well!). Every time I see this flourish in a non-musical it plays like the playwright ran out of steam for the final scene and couldn’t figure out a better way to end the thing. Isn’t the kiss pay-off enough?
[On a side note, Jory directed the world premiere of “H2O,” the new play by mysterious Kentucky playwright Jane Martin, at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, this past summer. “H2O” explores the tumultuous relationship between a self-destructive actor (played by Podulke, who simply burned up the stage) and the evangelical Christian actress he believes to be. It was an absolutely riveting and precisely-rendered production of a play that crackles with vitality, humanity and need, and with Martin and Jory’s long history with Actors Theatre, it would have been a triumphant addition to the golden anniversary season.]