Jessica Myhr as the prostitute who has Patrick Woodall in her power in this tragedy by George Lillo at the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
THEATER REVIEW | 'THE LONDON MERCHANT'Congratulations to everyone in this amazing cast and crew. You've earned this.
A 1731 Morality Tale That Aged Well, Unlike Its Characters
By KEN JAWOROWSKI
Published: January 17, 2012
The long title of the play: “The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell.” The short review: excellent.
That’s a simple way to sum up this co-production by the Storm Theater and the Blackfriars Repertory Theater. But there’s no one word to convey the pleasure of discovering an exciting work when you’d been dreading a musty old relic.
“The London Merchant,” written by George Lillo and first performed in 1731, was a hit in the 18th century and has mostly vanished since. The tragedy centers on the title character, a young apprentice who falls under the spell of the scheming prostitute Millwood. She soon manipulates Barnwell into embezzling his employer’s money, then leads him to contemplate graver crimes.
Considered groundbreaking because of a plot that focused on working-class characters, this morality tale remains deliciously tense and dark; Lillo surely read his Shakespeare, for there are faint echoes of “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.” There’s also some fine poetry, and just a bit of stuffiness that betrays the script’s age, as does an occasional, and forgivable, didacticism.
As Barnwell, Patrick Woodall has an exceptional presence, particularly in soliloquy. Jessica Myhr, as Millwood, is captivating and coldly wicked. As Millwood’s servants, Michelle Kafel and Spencer Aste supply the welcome humor (with the clever Mr. Aste doubling as Barnwell’s uncle), while Joe Danbusky, Harlan Work and Megan Stern shine in supporting roles. All of the cast, directed on a clean, spare thrust stage by Peter Dobbins, exploit the underlying emotions to full effect, and Michael Abrams’s lighting heightens the foreboding mood.
There are so many surprises in the 2 hours and 10 minutes of “The London Merchant” that you may have to remind yourself that yes, you are in a basement that houses the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, a space far off the radar of most audiences. That’s not a snobbish statement, but rather an acknowledgment that, in New York, out-of-the-way places can produce some first-rate theater.
“The London Merchant” continues through Jan. 28 at the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, 405 West 114th Street, Morningside Heights; (212) 868-4444, stormtheatre.com.