Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is perhaps the most renowned or at least well known play in the world of Jacobean comedies not written by Shakespeare. Written in 1610, it demonstrates clearly why Jonson has garnered the reputation of “the best of the rest” for the period’s playwrights. The play is as witty, bawdy, and irreverent as it is meandering, overwrought, and inefficient. It offers plenty of laughs and the not-so-subtle social critique we have come to expect and admire from classic comedy, but marries those pleasures to a tedium of plot and action.
Director and adapter Bonnie J. Monte of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey calls her version of the play “a stream-lined adaptation,” but while some of Jonson’s verbosity has been amended and a few smaller roles and scenes have been eliminated, the performance nonetheless clocks in at three hours (the advertised two and a half hours seems willfully disingenuous) and little has been done to avoid the plot’s tiresome redundancies.
The play opens as two conmen scuffle and argue over their respective importance to their shared hustling venture. Face (Jon Barker) is butler to a nobleman who has fled London in fear of the plague, leaving his servant to tend the house. In the absence of the homeowner, Face has recruited Subtle (Bruce Cromer) to impersonate a learned and mystical alchemist, willing for no small fee to perform all kinds of conjuring services for the locals. Subtle plays the master wizard, duping the greedy and gullible customers whom Face woos to the house. Some want their tin turned to gold, some want charms for good luck, some want easy romance, but all are foolishly willing to fork over sacks of money to the conmen.
As the two fight at the play’s opening, we learn all about their checkered pasts and the goals of their hustle while each claims priority over the other. Jonson seems concerned to make clear from the beginning that the clever and comic thieves with whom he will seek to delight us over the course of the play are in no way defined by honor. As with their customers, it is only greed driving these two.
The quarrel is settled by the conmen’s third accomplice, Dol Common (Aedin Moloney), a prostitute who will be variously called on to play a fairy queen and a noble but psychotic lady for unsuspecting marks. Stealing Face’s sword, she engineers peace with the threat of violence and the reminder that their communal swindle can only succeed by standing on three legs. Lest we forget over the long next few hours, the opening scene endeavors to make very clear that these three are in it for the cash, and the apparent camaraderie that we soon see appear is as duplicitous as Subtle’s wizard robes.
The play’s plot unfolds as a litany of gullible customers arrive at the house in order to procure any number of miraculous goods or services from their neighborhood alchemist. Be they knight, pharmacist, gambler, or clergy, all succumb to charms of Face and the mysticism of Subtle. And all eagerly fill the purses of the swindlers.
Comedy builds as various different marks show up unexpectedly, and the conmen must manage each of their several hustles as nimbly as possible, scurrying around to keep as many plates spinning as possible. One victim must be stowed in a side room while lies are spun to another who will be shooed off to the accompaniment of Dol Common while a third victim is actively conned.
These hijinks carry a lively and fun first act, but dramatic irony and colorful deceit can go only so far. As the play progresses into the second act, many of the same games continue with the same targets. The master key to this particular scam is to delay delivery ad infinitum, collecting today for goods to be delivered next week, and then apologizing the following week for unforeseen complications that require more payment but have put off delivery for another month. Dramaturgically, this is problematic for an audience that is in on the trick from the opening curtain. We get it, and if it was a joy to watch the hustle in action during the first act, it grows tedious watching the same hustle play out in the second.
But Jonson is in no hurry to wrap up his plot. Like Shakespeare’s contemporaneous plays Measure for Measure and The Tempest (both recently directed by Monte at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey), The Alchemist ties its plot into a complex web of knots and then takes its sweet time sorting them all out. Resolution to the plot and performance come belatedly and long wished for.
As should be expected, the performances of the Shakespeare Theatre’s ensemble are as expertly masterful as usual. Barker and Cromer give as much to their characters as Face and Subtle give to their complex deceit. As the comic plot grows tiresome, the kinetic performances of each only ramp up in impressive fashion. The conmen’s marks are mostly flatly drawn dullards, but even there the ensemble finds room to bring these characters to light. Brent Harris especially shines as the bombastic, idolatrous Sir Epicure Mammon. Sadly, the production makes us wait close to three hours for the entrance of the great John Ahlin, in the role of Lovewit, but his performance is nonetheless a delight.