The three con artists at the center of Ben Johnson’ 1810 play The Alchemist, now at New World Stages, absolutely cannot turn stone into gold, as they promise, but the expert actors who play them in Red Bull Theater’s jubilant production of the play can definitely deliver the comic goods. Indeed, the entire cast of Jeffrey Hatcher’s freewheeling and often anachronistic adaptation of this classic farce, directed with absolute assurance by Jesse Berger, is guaranteed to have you smiling – and even guffawing – at their ridiculous antics.
In this slimmed-down, two-hour version of Johnson’s more expansive work, all the action (and there is plenty of action) takes place on Alexis Distler’s handsome re-creation of an English manor house. It’s here where the home’s butler, Face (an appealing Manoel Felciano), has conspired with the less-than-savory and completely misnamed Subtle (the always reliable Reg Rogers, serving up his patented brand of ham on wry) and the pretty and pretty devious Dol Common (the very fine Jennifer Sanchez) to dupe the local townspeople.
One by one, these foolish folk come by asking for a chance to gain a fortune or make a love match: the awkward Drugger (a well-cast Nathan Christopher), the foppish clerk Dapper (the droll Carson Elrod), the vain Sir Epicure Mammon (the hilarious Jacob Ming-Trent, who almost walks off with the show), the religious fanatic Ananais (the hilarious Stephen DeRosa), and finally the none-too-bright Kastril (a physically imposing Allen Tedder) and his seemingly shy widowed sister Dame Pliant (the lovely Teresa Aviva Lim).
Unfortunately for the conniving tricksters, Face’s master upsets their master plan by sending a litter that he is unexpectedly set to come home at noon, forcing the trio to work at triple speed. As a result, we witness numerous, quicksilver costume changes (the period togs are by Tilly Grimes), lots of unexpected entrances and unplanned exits -- plus a surprising rendition of “Goldfinger,” a played-for-giggles same-sex “romance,” and at least one unforeseen complication in the personage of Mammon’s companion: a badass from Bay Ridge (!) named Surly (an effective Louis Mastillo).
As it turns out, Surly isn’t the trio’s biggest enemy; greed and mistrust are. In fact, Dol eventually tries to turn her partners against each other when she thinks each is interested in Dame Plaint – and hopes to walk off with their ill-gotten gains all by herself. But what Dol, Fame and Subtle don’t even see, as they try to outmaneuver each other, is that even the smartest players can get played.
In the end, the joke may be on them, but the laughs, happily, are all on us!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Nathan Christopher, Stephen DeRosa, Carson Elrod, Manoel Felciano, Teresa Avia Lim, Jacob Ming-Trent, Louis Mustillo, Reg Rogers, Jennifer Sánchez, Allen Tedder
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street
New York, NY 10019