nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 15, 2009
There are parallel plots running through David Caudle's new play, Likeness. One is political and one is artistic. The first is about the smoldering resentment of the American colonists toward the Stamp Act passed by the British Parliament, which imposed a tax on all printed paper. The second deals with artistic integrity. Yet, with all this high-mindedness, Likeness is straightforward, down-to-earth entertainment, with some very good performances.
The play begins in 1765 with the passage of the Stamp Act, the scent of unrest in the air, and the arrival of an up-and-coming artist, Edmund Farraday, to the Westerley home in colonial Boston. Farraday has been commissioned by Westerley—newly assigned to govern the enforcement of the Stamp Act—to paint a portrait of his daughter. The portrait is meant for Sir James, a British nobleman, who is betrothed to Miss Westerley, but who has not seen her since she was a child. Westerley is familiar with Sir James's taste in women and knows that his daughter will not appeal to him. Nevertheless, he is determined to get a commitment from Sir James based on a portrait that "will make one small daughter a perfect posy." There is a governess, Miss Preston, who educates and watches over the 16-year-old Miss Westerley, a field-hand-turned-artist's-assistant, Marcus, who also watches her from afar, and Mrs. Mapes, referred to as Westerley's "niece," but really his mistress.
Caudle presents a somewhat predictable but not unpleasant journey. As directed by Jessica Ammirati, the play starts slowly, allowing too much time to mix paints and apply medium to a canvas. This is no different than watching paint dry, and imposes a shaky pace. The pace picks up nicely in Act II when the dialog kicks in and the actors identify with the commitment of their characters. Danielle Quisenberry renders one of the stronger performances as Miss Preston, the governess. She demonstrates dedication to her charge, commitment to what's morally right, and fearlessness. Erin Wilhelmi brings welcome complexity to the role of Miss Westerley. An untraditional beauty, it is her porcelain skin and luminescent blond hair, both enhanced by Drew Vanderburg's lighting, that make you want to reach out and touch her. Without saying a word, Wilhelmi communicates character and defiance waiting to burst. Ryan Metcalf lends innocence to the young assistant, and Laurel Lockhart, though adding an amusing turn as Westerley's "niece," looks less like a mistress than a sweet housekeeper who has just finished baking a cherry pie.
What is missing most in Likeness is sustained drama. Opportunities abound, but are too often missed. Stu Richel, who plays the tyrannical Mr. Westerley, appears benign despite his words. This is key, because his words and actions cause the artist Farraday to sacrifice all honesty in his portrait. He instills terror in Marcus, the assistant, and alienates his daughter, who ultimately finds strength in convictions she previously was unable to voice. Brad Fraizer's Farraday gives us the tentativeness of someone with a great opportunity who doesn't want to screw it up. But, he is easily seduced into revising his painting. Fraizer shows better understanding of his character in Act II, when he resolves to paint the brilliant portrait for which he is commissioned.
Jason Bolen designed the simple, appealing barn/studio where all the action takes place, and Ien DeNio created sound.