A thoroughly satisfying drama called The Countess has quietly joined the ranks of Off-Broadway's long-running plays. The production began 14 months ago as a showcase at the Greenwich Street Theatre before moving to the Samuel Beckett on Theater Row last June. With that theater scheduled for demolition, the show has moved yet again to continue its extraordinary run, officially reopening on May 11 at the Lamb's Theater. The play's commercial success has nothing to do with stars, sex, skin, or the vanity of its producers. The Countess continues to draw audiences because playwright Gregory Murphy has written a work of emotional complexity, staged with elegant simplicity by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and performed with exceptional skill by its three leading actors. It's a pleasure to say that The Countess is a success because it deserves to be.
The story is based on bona-fide 19th century scandal involving the famous English author/critic John Ruskin (James Riordan) and his wife, Effie (Jennifer Woodward). Married for six years, the troubled couple embarks on a trip to the Scottish highlands with the up-and-coming painter John Everett Millais (Jy Murphy) in their party. Thrown together in ways unthinkable in London society, Millais falls in love with his mentor's wife. She is drawn to him, as well, but fights the urge to run away with him--until she can resist no longer.
Good romantic stuff, eh what? But The Countess offers more than that. It gives us Ruskin in all his intellectual glory, a man so caught up in his theories of ideal beauty that he cannot connect to his wife's all-too-human beauty. It also gives us a smart, strong-willed woman. The playwright doesn't pander to the audience by presenting Effie as a modern heroine in Victorian dress; she is a woman of her time, who knows the limitations of her world and tries to live within them. Whatever she does that is outside the norm is done because she is given no other alternative. A complicated, richly textured character, Effie is at the center of this play's appeal. As for Millais, he is a hero of the heart, made credible by the blending of his artistic sensibility with his compassionate outrage over Effie's treatment.
There is delicacy in the writing, direction, and acting of The Countess. The clash of painterly ideas between Ruskin and Millais, for instance, resonates ever more deeply as the relationships among the three characters unfold. And when the simple statement of a character's name creates the visceral impact of a nude sex scene, you know you're watching a genuinely hot piece of theater. These effects aren't dimmed even upon multiple viewings--we've seen the play three times now, but we can't say it has gotten better because it was terrific from the start.
Ostensibly playing the villain, Riordan gives his Ruskin dignity and vulnerability. He is, in the end, as much a victim as Effie. As the plot unfolds, you can see the character's arrogance as well as his shame; Riordan gives a stunning performance in what may well be the play's most difficult role. Woodward is incandescent as Effie, bringing an earthy reality and naturalness to the part. At the same time, the emotions that flood through her are instantly apparent and ever changing. Her performance is not to be missed. Murphy's Millais is harder to pin down; he plays a more conventional sensitive guy but he does so with a wonderfully idealized sense of conviction that is perfect for the piece.
The play falters only in its supporting cast. Richard Seff and Anita Keal play John Ruskin's overbearing parents as one-note caricatures. (They are also written that way, so the fault is not entirely the actors'.) On the other hand, Kristin Griffith as Lady Eastlake, Effie's lone female confidante, carries herself proudly and well.
When you go to The Lamb's to see The Countess, be sure to glance at the sketches and paintings on display at the back of theater. There you will find many of the works by Millais that are referred to in the play, some of which subtly find their way into Mark Symczak's set design. Seeing the real artwork enriches an already richly realized work of theater.