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Haymarket

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Facts are great things that shouldn't be relegated just to history classes. But when it comes to theatre, even (or especially) plays based on real events should use them at best judiciously, focusing on larger questions of richer meaning to audiences: the meaning of freedom, for example, or how far is too far to go after what you believe in.

These questions occupy much of our public discourse these days, and are among those that Zayd Dohrn considers, after a fashion, in his interesting but sleepy Haymarket, which just opened at the Beckett Theatre. Looking at the 1886 Haymarket riots in Chicago, he hopes to shed light on the Big Business-versus-Little Worker struggle with the aim of making us better understand what's gained - and what's lost - by using violence in pursuit of big goals.

That makes this - sorry - one of those educational plays dedicated to helping us better understand our current world by presenting a historical slice of life onstage. And like many such plays, Haymarket faces its fair share of challenges: staid storytelling, static characterizations, and an inflated sense of importance not always matched by what those involved are capable of delivering. These are, to some degree, limitations of the form that practitioners of such shows must learn to work within.

Unfortunately, neither Dohrn nor director Robert Saxner does much to stretch these boundaries. Dohrn has based his script on newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, which he combines with original scenes of his own invention. But the story he's devised, centering on Albert Parsons (Dennis McNitt), one of the anarchists who's set up despite his obvious innocence, is heavy-handed: The anarchists we see are all well meaning, the Chicago government officials are vindictive opportunists looking to placate the voting public by charging someone - anyone - with complicity in the bombing that killed half a dozen police officers and an indeterminate number of civilians.

But after a time the anarchists' battles for an eight-hour work day and the bombing itself are forgotten so the focus can shift to the blame-placing, the real crime as Dohrn sees it. But he's not Arthur Miller, and this isn't The Crucible; Dohrn never completely devotes himself to the world he's trying to create, which makes compelling drama difficult to fashion. It's as though everything is filtered through a PBS documentary: You get the barest sense of history, but the playwright is working too hard to tell his story to involve you in it.

You want him to stop forcing dramatic events into prescribed patterns and just let them unfold naturally. But everything - from the lethargic pacing of the first act's endless exposition, to the framing device of Parson's daughter Lucy (Squeaky Moore) being interviewed in an asylum decades after the fact - feels manufactured. It's to Saxner's credit that the play, while never once feeling exciting, also never feels boring; his juxtaposition of past and present, between and within scenes, keeps you involved, even when nothing else does.

Most of the actors would benefit from similarly creative approaches to their portrayals. As dressed by costume designer Victoria Tzykun, McNitt has a strong presence visually; his stature and manner suggest a man of courage and strength, but his speaking voice and general attitude are only electrifying by the somewhat rarefied standards of tax accountants. Moore gives the production's most solid performance as both Lucy and her revolutionary mother, conveying a will and conviction that McNitt could learn from. It's not always easy, however, to determine whether Moore is playing Lucy or her mother, also named Lucy - though the characters are similar enough to cause little overall trouble.

It's a more significant problem with the other company members, all of whom are double or triple cast - often unwisely - in roles they're unable to easily distinguish from one another; this does little to alleviate confusion about who's saying what, when, and to whom. Heidi Meisenhelder's oppressive asylum set and Stephen Sakowski's lights do what they can to pick up the slack, but ultimately only underscore another main problem of this form: historical epics, even those as tiny as Haymarket, are hard to do on the cheap.

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Haymarket
Through December 23
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral