nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 12, 2006
Beau Brummell, Ron Hutchinson’s contribution to the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59, focuses on the eponymous hero’s obsession with style, showing that his character’s politics, values, and day-to-day priorities are subservient or in service of that single word. Quick wit, gradual reveals, and terrific acting combine for an evening that is highly amusing.
Lights rise on a hysterical, suicidal, and buck-naked Brummell finishing his bath. This should be enough to tip the audience off that something is amiss. But to reinforce this notion is Brummell’s slipshod valet, Austin. Austin, played by Ryan Early, is everything that Beau Brummell detests: he disdains his position, has no respect for his employer, values money and endlessly schemes for it, has no sense of humor, believes in revolution, and—worst of all—does not understand style. With Austin as provocateur, the story of Beau Brummell unfolds slowly and with humor: that he is on the outs with the Prince of Wales after a long friendship, that he is a profligate gambler, that he both owes money (including a year’s wages to Austin) and has spent time in debtors' prison, that he is living in self-imposed exile in France, and that he is mad. Yet, Austin stays and watches over him.
Ian Kelly, who has written a biography of Brummell, plays the man with precision. Kelly’s posture, the turn of his head, prove his character’s dictum, “Genius is in the wearing of clothes.” Brummell’s greatest rebellion is against the excesses of 18th century Regency England—wigs, laces, lavish brocades—and replacing them with the simple, understated elegance of coat, trousers, and a plain white shirt: “all the things I tried to get the Englishman to be.”
Indeed, Simon Green directs the evening as a reverse strip, with Brummell exacting from Austin each garment and building to a quivering climax with the tying of his cravat. Says Brummell, “To be dressed well, to say the right thing at the right time, that’s the nearest we ever get to the divine.” Kelly captures this belief and eyes the result of each additional garment in a full length mirror. He exudes dignity without ostentation.
Ryan Early gives Austin a good dollop of the practical, common man. If his Austin were around today, he would be perfectly comfortable in a pair of Levi’s, wondering why he was supposed to change to sit in the darkness of a theatre. Early keeps the script from floating too high off the ground with his character’s money-making schemes.
Hutchinson’s script is witty and informative. Yet, sometimes he sacrifices historical clarity for lines worth remembering. Occasionally, repetition rears its ugly head, but not enough to spoil the evening. Tom Rand has designed clever sets to accommodate the small stage and appropriate period costumes. Lighting and sound design are by Adam H. Greene and Mike Walker, respectively.
Hutchinson delivers a character who is more than a sharp dresser. Beau Brummell defines what this means, shedding some light on the convictions of this historic figure and the lengths to which he was willing to go to maintain his style.