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Under the Gaslight

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Amanda Jones
Photo by Alex Roe.

As the first year of President Obama's venture to reinvent America draws to a close, the Metropolitan Playhouse continues to pay homage to the America of old. Their latest act of devotion, Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight, is a sumptuous display of talent, entertainment, and comedy that not only draws out the quality of the script, but capitalizes on it to create performances that are memorable and wholly delightful. Partnering the groundbreaking surprises of the plot with some surprises of its own, the Metropolitan Playhouse has once again bolstered its reputation as a theater that breathes new life into forgotten American plays.

Although the show begins in the throes of loss, mourning becomes no one in the cast, particularly where Pearl Courtland (Sarah Hankins) is concerned. With the gaiety and appearance of Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, Hankins makes us forget time and again that Under the Gaslight's plot is reminiscent of Les Miserables. She pouts and brays, but it is out of jealousy of her cousin Laura (Amanda Jones), not out of sadness. Laura is soon to be married to Ray Trafford (Justin Flagg), a well to do man of society that adores her until his discovery of her meager origins gives him pause. To escape Byke (J.M. McDonough), the villain who alleges to be her father, and to spare her family and friends of the shame, Laura throws herself and her once fortunate life into a miserable exile.

Laura may not have been imprisoned like Jean Valjean or left to be the guardian of a child, but Byke, along with his accomplice Old Judas (Maria Deasy), are more than the equivalent of Inspector Javert. Their persecution of her leaves her in rags when she once donned Sidney Fortner's opulent attire. But don't start buying Kleenex yet. Though there are sad times, Under the Gaslight is far from a downer. Written as a melodrama, the performances and situations themselves are too exaggerated to inspire tears. And under Michael Hardart's direction, the comedy in these situations is so rich that your laughter will outweigh your sympathy.

The cast may be uniformly strong, but it's the contributions of the supporting players that will keep a smile on your face. As Snorkey, Brad Fraizer reprises the role of the lovable Yankee that he played in The Contrast with perfect comedic timing and mannerisms. His finest moments transpire during the railroad scene, which has come to be known as the play's most famous and inventive. As Peachblossom, Lian-Marie Holmes is a staunchly loyal servant to Laura, throwing words and her body into attack.

But the acting is not the only element that seizes the material and takes it to new heights. The staging is equally remarkable. Ralph Petrarca provides a live score of dramatic piano playing that keeps in tandem with the fall and rise of tension as well as the curve of the shenanigans. Coupled with Hardart's direction, Alex Roe's set design, from functional rowboats and railroad tracks to exit and entry points that slide in and out before our eyes, is as integral to your enjoyment of this production as anything else.

At two and a half hours, Under the Gaslight could have easily wore out its welcome. But because each moment is so exciting and so professionally crafted, rather than focus on the time, you'll be able to focus on the American culture that is the beating heart of Metropolitan Playhouse's productions. And maybe, just maybe, you'll come to realize that not everything needs revamping after all.

Under the Gaslight
Through December 19
Metropolitan Playhouse, in the Cornelia Connelly Center at 220 East Fourth Street (easternmost door) between Avenues A & B in the East Village
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Metropolitan Playhouse

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