Through Dec. 20
Here's a thought experiment: You settle into your seat as the Amtrak train leaves the station, all gear stowed away except for the briefcase bag beside you. Your destination's hours away. You briefly admire the view from your window and then reach into the bag for the one thing you've packed especially for the trip.
If it's the draft of a school or business paper you're driven to finish before pulling into Union Station, I'll be honest: Nicholas Nickleby might not be your play. On the other hand, if you're pulling out some gloriously trashy novel—sheer, unadulterated pulp—that you fully intend to get lost in as the miles melt away unnoticed, I think I have a show for you.
Why the question about your reading habits? Nicholas Nickleby is no ordinary show. Call it a theatrical miniseries requiring two full evenings at the theater—that or an afternoon-and-evening marathon like the one that the premiere audience and cast completed last Saturday at PlayMakers Rep. A greater-than-usual commitment is required of the viewer. Since taking up needlepoint is somewhat quicker than making your way through parts I and II, at the end you probably want to feel that the time you put into the enterprise was worth it.
A lot of that will likely have to do with how you feel about melodrama—not the theatrical put-down, in this case, but the classic (if somewhat benighted) literary and dramatic form. The formal genre definition emphasizes sensational plots riddled with sudden twists and reversals in fortune, physical action, appeals to sentiment and extreme emotions, stereotypical characters and extravagant theatricality. For best and less than best, Nicholas Nickleby is decidedly a melodrama of the old school. Given its roots, this makes sense. After all, Dickens' novel was originally published in monthly episodes and marketed to mass taste as a magazine in the late 1830s, and it was a huge success.
Nicholas Nickleby follows the many travails of its title character and his immediate family, sister Kate and their mother, Mrs. Nickleby. They are the destitute survivors of a country gentleman ruined by the Panic of 1825, a historic British financial crash not dissimilar to our own recent crisis. The cast of David Edgar's adaptation frames the Nickelby's predicament within the first moments of the script, which begins, "A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stockbrokers bought villa residences in Florence, 400 nobodies were ruined—and one of them was Mr. Nickleby."
This genteel country family makes its way to the big city, London, where it is split apart by a joyless, miserly Uncle Ralph. From that point, Nicholas goes into the world to find his fortune, encountering a series of vivid characters: a malicious boarding school manager, Wackford Squeers, his wife and their hopeless charges, the "unneeded" boys who have been sent to them to be warehoused more than educated. He escapes with the most miserable of the lot, the crippled Smike.
The pair's fortunes change when they encounter a group of extravagant theatricals overseen by the jubilant Vincent Crummles and his operatic wife. Nickleby is no sooner hailed the toast of Portsmouth for his work on stage than he receives word that his sister is being preyed upon by a louche upperclassman, Sir Mulberry Hawk. He dashes back to London.
And so on. And so forth.
If this incomplete description is enough to quicken your pulse, your path is clear: two tickets are indicated, on the double.
But be advised that throughout Nicholas Nickleby, we're most often presented with what I'd call the fact of characters, not the dimensionality of them. In Dickens' world, the virtuous (like Nicholas, Kate and Smike, among others) stay virtuous, villains remain villains (like Squeers, Hawk and Uncle Ralph) and the clueless (like Nicholas' mom) are left perpetually so. All remain larger than life, and that is largely that. Very occasionally, a character experiences a change in view or aspect. With so many chase scenes, the genre doesn't preoccupy itself with the development or psychology of its characters. Instead, they're presented as accomplished—and, for the most part, immutable—facts.
It's one of the main reasons that melodrama went out of style in the last century. Truth to tell, Edgar's adaptation, and this production, do little to alter that dynamic.
PlayMakers claims to be only the second U.S. company to perform a version of the script Edgar revised for the California Shakespeare Company in 2005. (In North Carolina, a student production was performed at N.C. Governor's School in 1987; UNC School of the Arts produced Edgar's original version of the work in 2003.) While in Chapel Hill, the playwright made further revisions specifically for this production.
How does it compare with the original? Those lucky souls who saw the Royal Shakespeare Company production on Broadway will note that its running time of eight and a half hours has been cut by 25 percent in this PlayMakers version, to a relatively zippy six hours, 22 minutes. Edgar has removed or condensed 17 scenes out of the 95 in the original version of his work, in a production that culls an original cast of 38 to this aggregate of 25.
In some cases, the changes streamline lengthy exposition. Elsewhere, they write out of this version the Kenwigs family, Mr. Lillyvick, Miss Petowker and an addled courtier to Mrs. Nickleby in Part II. Such shortcuts make the fateful character, Brooker, even more of puzzle than he was to begin with. A duel is dispatched off stage that originally took place in the public eye, and a final encounter with the victorious Crummles is erased.
The worst of these changes may be the marked shift in tone at the end of Part I. In the original version, the broken—or unfulfilled—promise of the commonwealth is starkly symbolized as a flag-draped Mrs. Crummles leads the ensemble in a patriotic hymn. Gradually, all cast members come out while the group intones, "See each one do what he can/ To further God's almighty plan/ The beneficence of heaven help/ The skillfulness of man." It was chilling to see Uncle Ralph and Mr. Squeers sing along as Nicholas faced Smike and sang the words directly to him. In this production, this moving statement is replaced by a jokey little number that implores us to buy more tickets to the theater. The new song, composed by Sarah Pickett, is quite amusing—until one recalls what it replaced.
This production features strong performances by Justin Adams as Nicholas, Ray Dooley as Ralph and memorable, multiple characterizations by Scott Ripley, Jimmy Kieffer, Jeffrey Blair Cornell and PlayMakers expatriate Dede Corvinus, but the ultimately thin bench for this show—even with 25 actors—shows up in too-similar performances by other triple- and quadruple-cast actors.
Nicholas Nickleby fully qualifies as the briskest six and one-third hours I have ever spent in a theater for a single show. Still, at the end of a long day, I was thinking, that's a lot of time to spend on a melodrama.