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The Alchemist

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 21, 2021

Reg Rogers, Jennifer Sánchez, Manoel Felciano,
and Carson Elrod

Photo by Carol Rosegg
When's the last time your funny bone was tickled? If it's been a while, then do yourself a favor and head out to the New World Stages, where Red Bull Theater's completely bananas production of Ben Johnson's early seventeenth century comedy, The Alchemist, opens tonight. It is more fun than a barrel of you-know-whats, and it has no agenda other than to paste a happy grin on your masked face.

If, as the saying goes, "dying is easy; comedy is hard," then the kind of zaniness on display here is harder still to successfully pull off. Drop one bowling pin and the sublime juggling act becomes a dud. Spoiler alert: Not one pin is dropped in The Alchemist, which has been adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, who did a similarly off-the-wall rewrite of Gogol"s The Government Inspector for Red Bull in 2017.

The Alchemist is a wonderful mixture of slapstick, screwball comedy, and farce, giving the production a loosey-goosey improv-like quality and a sense of risk, as if those metaphorical bowling pins had been exchanged for burning fire sticks. Think of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, who perfected the form in their films in the 1920s and 1930s. Add to the mix the absurd stylings of the Marx Brothers, Firesign Theatre, and Monty Python, in whose hands sense and nonsense majestically collide, leaving a bizarre sort of logic in their wake.

Clearly, Hatcher and director Jesse Berger have learned much from their predecessors. Drawing on these comic forms, their take on The Alchemist brings in just enough from Johnson's original work to barely qualify as an adaptation. Or, as Hatcher notes in the program: "Apart from dumbing down the highbrow jokes, ruining the perfect plot, and tossing in anachronisms, the play is pretty much your grandmother's The Alchemist."

What's left of that "perfect plot" revolves around a trio of con artists who are holed up in a mansion, in which set designer Alexis Distler has incorporated plenty of doors and hidden panels that fortuitously open and close just in the nick of time. The house currently is in the hands of a caretaker, as the lord of the manor is temporarily living away in order escape a plague that is sweeping across the land. He has left everything behind in the hands of his butler, Face (Manoel Felciano). While the boss is away, Face joins up with Dol (Jennifer Sánchez) and Subtle (Reg Rogers, outrageously funny) in a scheme to fleece the greedy neighbors by setting up shop and passing off Subtle as an alchemist, able to turn base medal into gold in exchange for some seed money from the gullible.

Given the nature of greed, there is no shortage of potential suckers. This gives the production plenty of fuel to build up a head of steam and whipsnap into a headspinning series of encounters between the hosers and the hosed. Prominent among the latter are Jacob Ming-Trent as Sir Epicure Mammon (resplendent in one of Tilly Grimes's gold-colored costumes), Nathan Christopher as the easily duped tobacconist Abel Drugger, and Carson Elrod as Dapper, the lawyer's clerk who is led to believe he is the nephew of the Queen of the Faeries. (Don't ask!). Each of them, as well as a number of others, is ripe for the plucking by our trio of mountebanks. Beware, however, that when there is money to be scooped up, there are always more scoundrels ready to pounce.

The Alchemist
Through December 19, 2021
Red Bull Theater
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: