Review: The Alchemist, When a Plague Becomes an Opportunity for Con Artists
For the most enterprising among us, every crisis represents an opportunity. So it is with the three con artists at the center of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, now playing at New World Stages in a crackling new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher. Powered by implausible situations and the kind of supercharged comic performances that make those situations seem perfectly acceptable, The Alchemist represents a mighty return for Red Bull Theater, the scrappy troupe with a joyously modern outlook on the classics.
Although set in the early 17th century, The Alchemist takes place under circumstances that are all too familiar: An outbreak of plague has sent a rich man to his country home, leaving his stately townhouse in the protection of his faithful servant, Jeremy (Manoel Felciano). Jeremy takes advantage of the free space to set up shop with his business partners, Dol Common (Jennifer Sánchez) and Subtle (Reg Rogers, playing against character name). Masquerading as a naval officer named Face, Jeremy invites to the house a parade of gullible fools eager to part with their money.
There's Abel Drugger (Nathan Christopher), a tobacconist with his eyes for Dame Pliant (Teresa Avia Lim), a rich young widow who naturally appeals to Subtle and Face too. First, however, they will have to deal with her hotheaded brother, Kastril (Allen Tedder). There's also Dapper (Carson Elrod), a clerk looking for a charm to help him win at gambling. Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent) comes to the house seeking a stone that will turn baser metals into gold. And the Dutch anabaptist Ananais (Stephen DeRosa) wants to employ a similar alchemy to finance a crusade against the Roman Catholic Church. Subtle dons the robes of scholars, magicians, and alchemists to convey an aura of expertise with these clients (read: victims), while Face offers the reassuring legitimacy of a military uniform (much in the way George Shultz and James Mattis did for Elizabeth Holmes). When that fails, Dol is there to close the deal with pure sex appeal.
If The Alchemist feels particularly relevant to our duplicitous era, in which a scam hides behind every e-mail and robocall, it is only because the allure of the get-rich-quick scheme is as old as gold. It is a passion shared by rich and poor alike: When Jonson premiered The Alchemist in 1610, Emperor Rudolf II had turned Prague into the alchemy capital of the world in pursuit of easy money. And really, what is "Bitcoin mining" (an attempt to turn great quantities of electricity into something more valuable) but this century's stab at alchemy?
Hatcher suggests these parallels with an adaptation that maintains the basics of Jonson's plot while updating the language for modern ears. This is the same feat he and director Jesse Berger performed in 2017's The Government Inspector, and as with that production, they have the audience rolling in the aisles.
It helps to have a cast teeming with top-notch comedians: Rogers leads the pack with his trademark suggestive growl and wild swoop of hair, which he is constantly stuffing under a new hat as each new client walks through the front door (and just as the last one is being shuffled out the back). Felciano is perfectly attuned to his timing, but an air of mistrust among thieves promises to derail the symbiosis between Subtle and Face at any moment. Sánchez's Dol is smarter than both of them, which is why she trusts them the least. Watching her ingenious improvisations unfold onstage (Sánchez is particularly good at making these seem like actual improvisations) is one of the great pleasures of this production.
The supporting actors add to the hilarity: Ming-Trent is ridiculous the puffed-up lecherous Mammon, while Louis Mustillo gives a novel interpretation of his skeptical friend, Surly. Christopher is endearingly dopey as Drugger, while Lim delivers a Pliant that is secretly smarter (and more ruthless) than she lets on. There is not a moment of dead air in Berger's farcical staging, which has these performers slamming doors and running up and down stairs in magnificently controlled chaos.
Alexis Distler's set (perhaps in a nod to Noises Off) is a splendid Tudor foyer with stairs leading to a gallery. The dark wood paneling, stained glass, and faux candle sconces (lighting by Cha See) create a sumptuous jungle gym for physical comedy, while also suggesting a sanctuary from the plague-stricken city beyond. Tilly Grimes costumes the actors in boots, capes, and ruffled collars, giving a clear sense of period while also allowing for the quickest of quick changes. Rick Sordelet choreographs an over-the-top sequence of slapstick violence that serves as a delicious cherry on this ice cream sundae of a comedy.
One can only speculate about what kind of high jinks took place in the great apartments of New York City as the moneyed class fled in 2020, or what continues to take place in the vacant sky-palaces of 58th Street. But if it's half as amusing as The Alchemist, I can safely say that the porters and doormen of this town are some of the best-entertained people on earth.