Alan Cox delivers a tour-de-force turn as the title character of J.B. Priestley’s little-known play.

Alan Cox and Col Farrell in <i>Cornelius</i>
Alan Cox and Col Farrell in Cornelius
(© Carol Rosegg)

Those who spend their days toiling away in an office may want a bit of escape when they venture to the theater. However, it would be foolhardy for them — or anyone — to skip the Finborough Theatre’s production of J.B. Priestley’s seldom seen 1935 drama, Cornelius, now being presented at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival. Director Sam Yates and his sterling cast, led by the extraordinary Alan Cox, have brought out every nuance of this deeply humane tale, set in the office of a foundering metals import firm.

The changing world fortunes have left the firm of Briggs and Murrison on its last legs, but James Cornelius (Cox) maintains a surprisingly sunny disposition, convinced that his partner Bob Murrison (Jamie Newall) will return from a sales trip with enough orders to stave off the company’s many creditors. While he’s willing to do whatever he can to keep the office afloat, one also senses Cornelius knows that the book is closing on this chapter of his life. And he may be ready to start a new one — especially after the arrival of comely typist Judy Evison (Emily Barber).

Judy’s presence immediately irks the plain, starchy Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin), who’s clearly in love with Cornelius, but has surprisingly little effect on veteran coworker Biddle (Col Farrell) and Lawrence (David Ellis), the frustrated office boy. However, what eventually upsets the delicate balance of the firm — and Cornelius’ world view — is when Murrison returns, not just empty-handed but absolutely quite insane.

Cox’s broadly entertaining, carefully conceived turn is a marvel, showing off the many facets of Cornelius’ personality as the three-act play evolves. He’s part-pragmatist and part-dreamer; part world-weary soul and part eternal optimist. His interactions with the various salespeople who come to peddle their wares — sometimes tough one second and tender the next — are particularly enlightening, as are his dealings with the firm’s starchy creditors, notably the callow Eric Shefford (Alex Bartram). Equally compelling is the depth of feeling he brings to his brief reconciliation with Murrison. And his final moments alone in the soon-to-be-shuttered office are simply stunning.

The actor is also to be lauded for letting the entire ensemble shine, no matter how large or small their roles. In addition to the enchanting Barber and pathetic Colin, both of whom perfectly embody their characters, Beverley Klein stands out in dual roles as the smarter-than-she-seems cleaning lady, Mrs. Robert, and the not-so-bright Mrs. Reade, the landlord’s dithery niece who quickly develops her own hankering for Cornelius.

Even with such a juicy role at its center, Cornelius isn’t the kind of fare that’s likely to have a commercial New York run. So let’s be grateful to Brits Off Broadway for allowing us to take in this forgotten gem.

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Closed: June 30, 2013