The Mystery of Charles Dickens by Peter Ackroyd. Directed by Patrick Garland. Set designed by Christopher Woods. Lighting designed by Nick Richings. Starring Simon Callow.
If you love the works of Charles Dickens, you will adore The Mystery of Charles Dickens.
For those less than absolutely enthralled by Dickens's writing, Peter Ackroyd's new show at the Belasco is going to be a much harder sell.
That The Mystery of Charles Dickens was a huge success in England is hardly a surprise. But just as a one man show about Mark Twain, one of the most quintessentially American writers, might be enthralling to us, would it have the same grip on audiences in other countries? Diehard Charles Dickens fans may rejoice, but how many other people are just dying for the chance to see an English actor - albeit a great one (Simon Callow) - tell the story of an English writer - albeit great one - onstage?
Regardless, this production, directed by Patrick Garland, is solid. It has a charmingly British design by Christopher Woods, who has based his work on the painting Dickens's Dream by Robert W. Buss, erecting a tiny theatre onstage (complete with antique footlights), and portrait frames surrounding (and skewing) the playing space. Nick Richings's lighting is very useful in helping create and maintain the atmosphere of the play as well.
The primary element of The Mystery of Charles Dickens that makes undeniable sense on this side of the Atlantic is Callow, in his Broadway acting debut. He narrates the story of the life of the man who created Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and many other works, as well as portraying the author himself and 49 characters of his creation.
For those interested in the sheer craft of acting, because they do it or they just love watching it in its purest, most unsullied form, Callow's performance should put this show at the top of their theatregoing lists. Tackling a one-man play is a daunting proposition under the best of circumstances, but Callow handles it like the seasoned pro he is.
Like the Dickens he describes, Callow becomes each of his characters, altering the movement and very shape of his body as required to symbolize characters of greatly varying ages, body shapes, and social standings. He's at his best when the show allows him the greatest opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable talents, most notably in the second act. Re-enacting one of Dickens's reading tours throughout the United Kingdom, he becomes a host of characters relaying some of their greatest moments from Dickens's classic novels in quick succession. The characters by way of Dickens by way of Callow, spring vividly to life.
Of the rest of the show, unfortunately, the same cannot be said. The tour scene is the first time the play's enigmatic subject really comes to life, the first time Callow really has something to really sink his teeth into. The rest of Ackroyd's script is muddy, blurring the lines between biography and performance art to such a degree that the distinction between Callow, Dickens, and Dickens's characters is always in question.
Thematically, this makes sense; we're told early on that Dickens could never live without his characters. They consumed his life and, eventually, brought it to a perhaps untimely end. Callow demonstrates this harrowingly when dramatizing Dickens's last reading tours, in which Dickens becomes obsessed with performing Nancy's bloody death scene from Oliver Twist.
It is only then, near the end of the second act that the show almost achieves real theatrical excitement. But, as it takes such in a long time in arriving, lacking a deep familiarity with Dickens's life or his writings, you will most likely be too anesthetized to care. Even with Callow's performance, suffering through Dickens's painful early years is difficult.
The passages from Dickens that Ackroyd has injected into the narrative moments do help, but even then the show assumes too strong a familiarity with Dickens. If you don't have that, you have to take Ackroyd and Callow at their word. Sure, the person onstage seems to be playing Simon Callow now, someone from The Pickwick Papers at this moment, and now appears to be Charles Dickens himself, but that doesn't enhance Dickens's struggle for the unfamiliar. It just muddles it.
The real mystery of The Mystery of Charles Dickens is why this show was brought to New York in the first place. Being too slight a survey of most of Dickens's writings, too dry in presenting the details of his life, and providing far too little entertainment for all but the most stalwart Dickens enthusiasts, this is a puzzling show. It's too good to be bad, but too boring to be good. The Mystery of Charles Dickens really feels out of place in America.