Breaking Class Rules

Rita, a working-class hairdresser from the north of England, bumbles and bounces into the life of Frank, an overeducated college tutor and failed poet. Sporting a red fright-wig and rag-doll clothes, she comes on teetering heels to the open university, which she aptly dubs "degrees for dishwashers." Here she hopes to sate her craving for education, which she believes will lead her to a better life as the "sort of woman who knows the difference between Jane Austin and Tracy Austin." Frank, on the other hand, isn't sure she's made the right choice. He's lost faith in his own system, and warns the outrageous but original pupil that "being creative isn't necessarily being correct."

Over the course of a year, this odd couple bumps heads, hearts, and values as Rita strives to beat the British class system, and Frank, his life spiraling rapidly downward in a losing battle with alcoholism and intellectual angst, clings to her enthusiasm like a life raft. Like Henry Higgins, this educator molds a creature in his own image only to find that, when finished, his "creation" no longer needs his services.

Playwright Willy Russell, an outstanding talent who also penned Shirley Valentine, explores the class dilemma, the drawbacks of education, and the painful complexities of the human heart in his 1980 hit comedy Educating Rita, now at The New Theatre. Rarely will an audience find such a rich and involving piece of work. (The film version, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, is also excellent.) The play succeeds on so many levels that there's a hook for everyone. In a scathing attack on English education, it indicts a system that grudgingly allows working-class hopefuls the semblance of learning, but no place in society to employ the resulting knowledge. As a love story, the play tenderly explores how people change each other through hard lessons. And on a lighter note, Russell's comic wit has never been sharper than in this work, with Frank playing Rita's perpetual straight man.

Under the direction of Richard Janaro, associate dean of theater at New World School of the Arts, both the humor and darkness of the piece are captured. He stages the awkward relationship appropriately, moving the duo from confrontation to appreciation and, in the end, to a need to break free of each other. Helen Reece (Rita) and Andrew Noble (Frank) - both English by birth - work tirelessly to engage the audience in their plight, and rarely do they fail. Reece's Rita, in particular, deftly evolves from a nervous oddball into a "half-caste" freak who is ultimately part gutter, part genius. Designer Rafael de Acha's cozy set, authentic decor, and simple lighting serve the production well.

The British class structure also rears its head in the creepy Night Must Fall, distinguished playwright Emlyn Williams's 1935 exploration into the mind of a sociopath. This time, a working-class hero ingratiates himself to wealthy Welsh landowner and relentless hypochondriac Mrs. Bramson. Dan, the charming and glib bellhop at the local inn, first impregnates Mrs. Bramson's maid, then talks his way into a trusted position in the household. Yet murder stalks the surrounding forest, wealthy divorcees are disappearing, and Mrs. Bramson's repressed niece, Olivia, quickly uncovers Dan's sinister side. But instead of alerting the police when he whistles a tune the murderer was overheard singing, Olivia is drawn to the amoral charmer, spinning a doomed web around them both.

The play, not a "whodunit" but an engaging look into the motives for murder, exemplifies the perfectly constructed British mystery, complete with wise-cracking servants, snobby dowagers, and anal-retentives from Scotland Yard. Advanced for its time, Night Must Fall seems only mildly dated in plot and theme - murder is no longer an apocalyptic event, and sociopathic behavior assaults society with gnawing regularity.

The problems with the current production by the Caldwell Theatre Company stem not so much from the material as from director Michael Hall, whose pedestrian staging and unfortunate choices diminish the piece. Olivia and Mrs. Bramson appear confined to specific areas of the stage, and instead of portraying Dan accurately, as a "normal" lad, Hall allows Peter Bradbury to move hyperactively, writhe on the floor, and practically foam at the mouth. (Someone should have watched Ted Bundy's final taped interview, and not mistaken psychopathic for psychotic - the courts even recognize this crucial distinction.) When Bradbury calms down and connects with lethal charm, his performance demands attention.

The rest of the cast presents adequate but listless work, incompetent only in the case of Joe Warik as Olivia's wimpy suitor, Hubert Laurie. Pat Nesbit as Olivia, Joy Johnson as Mrs. Terence, the arch cook, and Carmella Ross as Mrs. Bramson all offer fine moments, but the timing never crackles enough to let them shine. The comfortable Welsh bungalow designed by Frank Bennett boasts a true authenticity, while Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting adds exceptional touches by blending day subtly into night, casting eerie shadows from hidden hallways.

Modern British theater has changed considerably, from drawing room thrillers to realistic portrayals of social ills. Yet beneath most pieces still lurks the dark heart of a ruling class, forcing less fortunate citizens to find various modes of escape. For some, the answer may be education. For others, murder will do nicely.

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