nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 21, 2006
Theater Ten Ten's new revival of Northanger Abbey: A Romantic Gothic Comedy is rousing, entertaining theatre. Lynn Marie Macy's adaptation of both the novel by Jane Austen and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe is a paragon of its form. This funny and suspenseful production boasts strong writing, expert direction by David Scott, and a crackerjack cast led by the beguiling Tatiana Gomberg. If you need a Jane Austen fix, you could not ask for a better one than this.
Young Catherine Morland is a sweet young girl with a love for books, especially gothic romance novels like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Armed with Radcliffe's multi-volume melodramatic potboiler and a longing to become a heroine, Catherine sets out from her home in the English countryside for a six week vacation in Bath. Her hosts are the Allens, old friends of her family's, who keep Catherine's social calendar full. She soon makes the acquaintance of Henry Tillney, a handsome and dashing young clergyman on whom Catherine has a serious crush. But, her attempts to get closer to him are constantly thwarted by John Thorpe, an obnoxious young suitor hell-bent on courting Catherine. When our heroine accepts an invitation to visit Henry and his family at their home, Northanger Abbey, Catherine thinks she's got it made. But, she soon discovers there may be other forces working to keep them apart.
Throughout her adventures, Catherine's vivid imagination brings to life scenes from Udolpho, where she envisions herself as the novel's plucky and determined heroine, Emily St. Aubert. But, many of these scenes seem to increasingly mirror the events in her own life.
Macy's decision to juxtapose Northanger Abbey and Udolpho works really well. She pokes good-natured fun at the kind of literature that was most popular back then (i.e., Radcliffe's, not Austen's), while providing Catherine with the impetus she needs to go seek adventure. Plus, the Udolpho sections are fun little diversions for the audience, supplying over-the-top comedy, whereas Austen's humor is more of the subtle drawing room variety. Northanger Abbey is loaded with incident after incident, and at more than two-and-a-half hours there's a lot of information to take in. But, Macy does a splendid job of delineating characters, locations, and events without confusion. She is equally good about distinguishing the Udolpho sections from the rest of the play.
Scott, of course, has a hand in this as well, keeping the production moving swiftly enough so that the audience catches everything, but also so that the action never lags. He and Macy create a surprising amount of tension keeping the audience wondering whether Catherine and Henry will end up together or not (and this, despite the fact that anyone who's ever read or seen any Jane Austen knows what will happen). And, the ways he stages the back-and-forth jumps between the story proper and Udolpho—with a well-placed light change, a flash of lightning, a villainous laugh—are marvelous.
Northanger Abbey also features several period dances—beautifully choreographed by Judith Jarosz and Ricki G. Ravitts—that lend an extra level of authenticity to the production. Jeanette Aultz Look's gorgeous 18th century costumes not only look brand new, but also help establish character (Catherine's tasteful but plain dresses say a lot about her social and economic status). And, Joseph J. Egan's set ingeniously captures the essence of Northanger Abbey with a wall of life-size book spines, and one practical book whose pages are turned to indicate scene changes. Bradley James King's lights smartly enhance this already divine production.
Northanger Abbey is blessed with a talented cast that embraces the language and social conventions of the period as if they were their own. As Catherine, Gomberg is a luminous presence, all sweetness and propriety without a touch of snobbery. She drives the production with her convincing wide-eyed wonder. The entire ensemble (most of them double- and triple-cast) does a remarkable job, but special mention must be made of Julian Stetkevych's equally endearing performance as Henry. Also distinguished are Sarah Tillson as his elegant and long-suffering sister, Eleanor; David Fuller as their intimidating authoritarian father, General Tillney; Timothy McDonough as the hilariously clueless John Thorpe; and Summer Hagen as his scheming, impish sister, Isabella.
I can't recommend Northanger Abbey: A Gothic Romantic Comedy highly enough. It is a superb piece of theatre that will reward all comers who are tuned into its timeless gentility.