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The Contrast

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Tovah Suttle and Amanda Jones
Photo by Meg Goldman.

Before the first words in Royall Tyler's The Contrast are even uttered and before the arguments are ever presented, the differences in this production from the typical staging of period pieces are clear. Two mannequins, dressed in the stateliest of the stately costumes, stand rigid onstage as the only representation of the garb of the 18th century. Later we discover that they are used for so much more. Apart from a choice that is both ingenious and thrifty (how often do those two marry?), the use of these mannequins as hat racks, seating, and um, mannequins are but just a few things that make this an engrossing and imaginative production.

But just as imagination is given, it is also required. The play, about the supposed prickly and uncouth America - New York City - versus a suave and sophisticated Europe, opens with a lot of pantomiming and genteel gesturing from the wealthy. Charlotte, a playful opportunist with high-ranking friends played deliciously by Amanda Jones, and her wealthy friend Letitia, played by Tovah Suttle, enter the stage wearing tank tops and pencil skirts. Except, with their carefully calculated movements, we are to envision they don petticoats and elaborate hats. It takes clever acting on their part and patience on yours - not all movements are easily decipherable - but their effort is impressive. Yet, imaginary clothing and accessories isn't the only thing that is put on. Deceit and trickery are worn by some of the characters like a cloak.

Billy Dimple (Bryan Close), meant to stand in as the snobby and rich persona of Europe, is the chief proprietor of such deceit. With a snakish charm, Dimple beguiles Letitia into his arms while juggling Charlotte on the side and in arrangements to make Maria (Maria Silverman), an honest girl, his wife. This manage-a-quatre may be a critique on Europe's political and territorial strategy, but it's also a delightful bit of theatrical play.

Coming in as runner-up is Jessamy (Matt Renskers), Dimple's wily and entertaining servant. In an effort to set up the contrast between America and Europe, Jessamy convinces Jonathan, the Yankee character made hilarious and buffoonish by Brad Fraizer, to woo Jenny (a young Alex Kingston look-a-like, Ali Crosier), Maria's servant, with preposterous courtship rituals. In this instance, the voracious student learns quickly from the master. It is within this yarn that Col. Henry Manly (Rob Skolits), the epitome of honor and the persona of America -ahem-meets and becomes enraptured with Maria. Conflicts of interest abound, fun ensues, and Tyler sets up a side-by-side exhibit of home-made goods pitted against foreign goods.

No matter which "goods" you are apt to side with, The Contrast will titillate you. Director Alex Roe undertakes a four-act, talky script and turns it into a well-crafted production. Under his direction, the splendid cast draws in the audience on all three sides of the Metropolitan Playhouse Theater, making every patron a part of the action and the joke. As the first play ever that was written by an American citizen and professionally produced, it is fitting that the subject matter should focus on the differences between America, quite inexperienced in the arts at the time, to Europe, which had already been exporting Shakespeare for years. Fortunately, this production recalls much of the good that we had to offer even then.

The Contrast
Through November 1
Metropolitan Playhouse, in the Cornelia Connelly Center at 220 East Fourth Street (easternmost door) between Avenues A & B in the East Village
Performances: Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Metropolitan Playhouse

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