No one would suggest children shouldn't crack open a book outside school hours. But entertainment aimed at them that does little but remind them of books they probably got enough of in English class will be a tough sell for even more tolerant youngsters, to say nothing of their hopefully patient parents. That's the problem with the new TheatreWorks USA production of Great Expectations, which Bathsheba Doran has adapted from the classic Charles Dickens novel, that just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The best word to describe it is "literary": Doran's editing of the source into a 90-minute play is smartly done, making use of enough of the original Dickens words and atmosphere to give it a genuinely authentic, gaslight glow. "Faithful" might rank a close second, as practically all the most noteworthy events in the life of the novel's main character, Pip, are depicted onstage, if in heavily abbreviated form. "Efficient" is a fair number three, as director Will Pomerantz guides the viewer from one brief scene to another with a gentle hand that brushes aside what little fat Doran's treatment didn't trim away.
But if "literary," "faithful," and "efficient" don't sound like adjectives describing an electrifying hour and a half at the theatre, that's because this show never rises above its basic, dutiful mission as a living CliffsNotes. As presented, this Great Expectations is the theatrical equivalent of a pop-up book: Plenty of things jump out at you, but few in more than two dimensions.
Only the presence of Kathleen Chalfant identifies this show as a work of theatre. The brittle, yet recognizable, despair she brings to Miss Havisham, the elderly woman whose distrust for men has transformed her into a half-mad recluse determined to wreck the entire gender's lives, is almost enough to compensate for the perfunctory stateliness of the rest of the production. There's nothing predictable about the hope occasionally flashing behind her eyes, the warm glances at Pip (Christian Campbell) that suggest she's searching in him for the son she never had, or the rigid desperation that drenches her life in bitterness and eventually drowns her in it.
Chalfant has turned one of English literature's most disagreeable figures into an actual, recognizable, even pitiable woman. Yet her actions, particularly how she manipulates her adopted daughter Estella (Kristen Bush) into insinuating herself into Pip's life and consuming it, are appropriately soulless. If you find yourself sympathizing with her one moment and cursing her the next, well, don't you have to blame her shattered heart? Chalfant makes you feel every prickly shard of it, and if you've ever been there yourself, you'll relate all too well.
Pip and Estella form a far unsteadier center, their relationship touching on all the expected points without enough additional color to justify its creepier, masochistic elements. More than anything else in the play, Estella's disinterested, abusive treatment of Pip - that nonetheless leaves him begging for more - will likely lose little kids altogether; even most adults will probably find the plausibility somewhat questionable as sped through here.
For these crucial scenes to play, you need actors who can fill in the gaps between the bullet points in Doran's outline of a dramatic treatment. A bland Campbell, who evinces none of Pip's inner moral and social dilemmas or superhuman resilience, and a one-note-stuff Bush aren't best for sweetening these denser, more trying aspects of the story into something that makes more emotional sense. The romantic life of Pip's early caretaker Joe (a likable Paul Niebanck), which oddly mirrors Pip's in its oscillations between resigned and happy (ultimately at the expense of someone else's happiness), feels far more real.
Thus Pip's travails traveling from poverty to society scion and then settling somewhere in between doesn't have the impact it should. It doesn't help that the roster of supporting performers is forced to double too often to keep the story's many characters easily identifiable; I had trouble keeping certain roles straight, so I can only imagine what children might go through. (For example, is it wise to have Pip's mysterious benefactor and the benefactor's messenger both portrayed by the same actor?) The sets and costumes (by Carol Bailey) convey the proper Victorian mood, but, especially in the upper-crust London scenes, seem almost as haphazardly cost-conscious.
The lesson here might be that attempting to condense an epic work, even on this scale, can't be done both well and on the cheap. (This lesson has already been proven in the last week by the new Broadway revival of Les MisÚrables.) At least Chalfant, making a wounded, sniping dove of a circling vulture, reminds you that even when costs are cut, great acting is worth paying almost any price.