Friday, January 28, 2011

THEATER: What the Public Wants

Time and again, Sir Charles Worgan (Rob Breckenridge), the manager/publisher of dozens of newspapers in England tells us that, as a businessman, he isn't concerned with the ethics behind his shock headlines and exclamatory articles. The people want war-mongering rumors and scandalous criminal tales, and who is he to deny them their fix, especially when it lets him run a million copies of his flagship, The Mercury, each day. But the more Charles bellows, the harder it is not to see him as a mouthpiece for playwright Arnold Bennett, especially since he keeps repeating the play's title: What the Public Wants. Cameos from a dramatic critic and theatrical manager (both played with great gusto by a huffy, supercilious Jeremy Lawrence) drive home the point that Bennett isn't interested in generating a good play, just as Charles doesn't care about making a good paper: he just wants to cater to his 1908 peers, and to that end, writes a casual, repetitive, and obvious bit of polemic about the divide between the highbrow "elite" and those who really matter -- everyone else (i.e., the public).

Director Matthew Arbour does his best to find a variety of notes in the production, and when that fails, cautions his cast to at least speak rather quickly (a choice which left a few of the actors tripping, rather charmingly, over their own tongues). After all, beyond the leaden exposition between Charles and his brothers, the artistic and worldly Francis (Marc Vietor) and the scientific and homegrown John (Douglas Rees), there is a dramatic plot: Charles's sweet (yet peculiar) attempts to marry a bad actress, Emily Vernon (Ellen Adair), with whom he sees an opportunity to enter the intellectual circles that have shunned him: "Oh, you've got to feel awkward, and so have I," he says, forcing himself to propose to her, though "love" is one of the many things he finds himself unable to discourse on.

It is hard to believe, however, that there is any sort of public that, after two intermissions, would sanction the choice to jump to a new setting, to introduce new characters that are almost comically flat in their irrelevance, and to repeat the arguments it has spent the previous two acts making. It's especially disheartening, as it robs Adair of the power and argument she needs for her climactic fourth act showdown with Charles. Couple this with Breckenridge's talent as an actor -- he plays wounded, prideful, and dashing all at once -- and we're left with an unbalanced finale. Even the Mint's set, designed by Roger Hanna, fizzles out: Charles's office is so large and sparse that the characters are rarely forced to actually interact with one another, and the swiveling interior of John's library is notably artificial.

On the upside, the Mint's revival is a timely affair, one that will likely resonate with its knowing audience. After all, in the past hundred years, the media has only grown more similar in its businesslike emulation of Charles, veering away from reportage and the sometimes forceful enrichment of its readers and into the pandering punditry that can stir up a steady circulation of readers, facts be damned. It is in that eerie prescience, and Breckenridge's unabashed portrayal of a man longing to prove himself to the elite that he regularly trounces, that What the Public Wants grows closer to (while still falling short of) being what the public -- and the theater -- needs.

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