The Drunkard, or The Fallen Saved
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 20, 2010
Thanks to Eugene O'Neill and a bunch of other people, American drama learned about psychology and, later, postmodern ideology, and as a result the simplicity of the morality play was generally abandoned. I don't know about you, but I kind of miss it: I like a play, sometimes, that is absolutely clear about what's right and what's wrong, with nary a shred of ambiguity or complexity or irony in evidence.
Such a play is W.H. Smith's The Drunkard, which is now being presented—delightfully; without ambiguity, complexity, or irony—at one of my favorite theatres, the invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse in Alphabet City. Written in the 1840s by a Welshman who emigrated to America earlier in the 19th century, this is as archetypal an American melodrama as there is. As soon as you meet each of its characters, you know immediately which category—Good, Evil, or Foolish—he or she fits into. Don't worry, they won't stray out of it, even if, as this title character certainly does, they flirt with terrible Temptation along the way.
The Drunkard's temptation, as you can easily guess, is Drink. The temperance movement was still pretty young in the 1840s, and in Smith's play they received the best kind of propaganda: this is a drama about how alcohol—in the form of brandy or whiskey, in this story—can lead to calamitous ruin. Our hero Edward Middleton starts off as the most upright young man imaginable: he's well-off, well-educated (but, in the grand American tradition, probably not too well-educated), well-mannered, and possessed of a strong sense of morality. But he's a little bit partial to the booze, and when his arch-nemesis Squire Cribbs finds this out, he is led on a seemingly inexorable path to ruin. By Intermission, Edward has left sobriety behind and gotten involved in more than one barroom brawl. By the story's climax, he is on Skid Row, he has deserted his family, and has no source of income and no home. The Devil Drink—abetted by the Evil Squire Cribbs—has apparently claimed another victim.
It won't ruin things to tell you that a happy ending is store for all except Squire Cribbs (but the audience will be well satisfied by how he ends up, too; you can easily imagine the less restrained audiences of the 1800s wildly cheering this villain's downfall). It's easy to smile at Smith's contrived and often illogical dramaturgy, but there's something very pleasing about knowing just where the playwright stands on a subject: no Mametian hedging or Lettsian excuse-making, just a clear and resounding condemnation that sends us out of the theatre well convinced of what we need to do to lead upstanding lives.
Under the deft direction of Francis X. Kuhn, The Drunkard comes to life vividly and entertainingly in this production. Kuhn doesn't shy from the piece's presentational style, and in fact elaborates on it with the addition of several temperance songs interspersed throughout the proceedings. Matthew Allar (set), Sidney Fortner (costumes), and Christopher Weston (lighting) provide a modest but entirely appropriate and evocative look for the show, while fight director Scott Barrow stages the fights with the slightest of winks as Batman-esque pow!-bam!-zonk! battles that feel completely in tune with White's modus operandi.
The cast is exemplary. Michael Hardart is wonderfully sympathetic as poor Edward Middleton, showing us both the upstanding, promising "before" version as well as the down-on-his-luck and at-the-end-of-his-rope "after." Ben Gougeon charms as Edward's half-brother Bill, who is the ingenious Yankee stock character in this stew, while Charlotte Hampden is dizzily over-the-top as Miss Spindle, a daffy spinster who sets her cap on Edward until his downfall. Stealing the show out from under them, appropriately enough, is Howard Thoresen as dastardly Cribbs, a fellow so e-vill that you half expect him at any moment to start twirling his moustache and tying random young women to railroad tracks. Thoresen revels in the unmotivated nastiness of his character, and in the constant misguided trust all of the others seem to place in him, past actions glaringly be dashed.
Smith's writing is old-fashioned, no doubt about it; I found it instructive, though, to suss out its antecedents—Edward gets a couple of would-be Shakespearean soliloquies, while Miss Spindle feels like a less articulate cousin to any number of characters in Sheridan comedies. Mainly, I enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity Metropolitan Playhouse gives us here to witness The Drunkard more or less as Smith wrote it and as our American antecedents saw it more than a century ago, when our country's provincialism was more a matter of fact than of pride. Journeys backward into our history are always instructive, though not always this much fun; I heartily recommend The Drunkard for its insight into the evolution of our national character and its odds-defying playworthiness in 2010.