Friday, March 13, 2009

Red-Haired Thomas

Photo/Carl Skutsch

Robert C. Lyons's Red-Haired Thomas is an openly cryptic new play; after all, it stars Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt) in a contemporary setting and deals with the most elusive and human of all human rights: the right to pursue happiness. (That's more or less the first line.) This makes Oliver Butler a wise choice for director: he has an ability to condense and clarify magical realism (as he has with his group The Debate Society) without stifling the material. Sure enough, save for a few wrinkles with a too-directly political subplot, the collaboration results in a thought-provoking evening, poking fun at our tendency to blow our problems out of proportion even as we minimize the unfortunate circumstances of others.

Where one may take issue is that Lyons has written myopically from the POV of Cliff (Peter Sprague), a symbolic capitalist, from the gunslinging attire he dons to his "job" as a freewheeling poker player, undone the second he grows a conscience--in this case, by his worries for his daughter, Abby (Nicole Raphael). This makes Cliff's counterpart, the hardworking and bitter newspaper salesman Iftikhar (Danny Beiruti) into a stereotype. Lyons wisely skirts the issue by treating him as a joke (and Butler has Beiruti ham it up), but it overpowers the truth behind Iftikhar's feeble attempt at being a suicide bomber: "In the paper, they treat us all the same!"

The play is stronger when on more serious and solid footing--Iftikhar may seem like an ass, but it's hard not to empathize when he refuses to return a portentous $20 bill to Cliff: "I will draw strength from it, knowing that somewhere, someone resents me for what I have. Then I will know the sweet taste of America." It's for this reason that the segments following Cliff's wife, Marissa (Danielle Skraastad), don't really work: while the worldview of a risk-management consultant is interesting, the presentation (PowerPoint and musical interlude) is jarring. This is also why Abby's scenes are so effective--not only is Raphael a perfectly convincing 11-year-old, but she's pure, even when playing her counterpart, Iftikhar's hajib-clad daughter.

In the end, it's the freedom Red-Haired Thomas touts that saves it. Lyons's script jumps around in an entertainingly comic way (thanks to the breathless Sprague, exasperated Benditt, and endearing Raphael), and Butler's direction accomodates it, using the entire Ohio Theater to emphasize the importance of location. There's also a neat visual effect, both in Sydney Maresca's costumes--modern times cross with Jeffersonian times as characters become what they (or others) envision them to be--and in the way Tom Gleeson's tarted up the set, creating an illusion of splendor for Iftikhar and Cliff to fight over. It's a credit to the cast and crew that when the facade is pulled down, the audience remains entranced--aware, more than ever, of the need for dreams.

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