NEW YORK—Red Bull Theater puts the axiom that people get exactly what they deserve squarely in their sights with Jeffrey Hatcher’s biting adaptation of Ben Johnson’s 17th-century comedy “The Alchemist,” now at New World Stages.
It’s 1610 and London has been ravaged by a great plague, which has caused those with means to flee to the relative safety of the countryside. Among those who have done just that is one Master Lovewit, who has left his home and possessions in the care of his servant, Face (Manoel Felciano).
Left to his own devices, Face joins forces with con artists Subtle (Reg Rogers) and Dol (Jennifer Sánchez), who set up shop in Lovewit’s grand home. Subtle claims to be an alchemist who can turn baser metals, such as iron, copper, or brass, into pure gold. He stresses, however, that the process will only work if the one seeking this treasure is totally without sin—in thought or in deed.
Subtle also claims to be a mystical soothsayer who can foretell the future. He’s willing to reveal his knowledge to all who seek it—for a price, of course. As Face spreads the word of Subtle’s talents, a horde of willing clients quickly appear. Among them, are the rich Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent), the religious Ananais (Stephen DeRosa), a law clerk named Dapper (Carson Elrod), and a slow-witted tobacconist called Drugger (Nathan Christopher).
Face, Subtle, and Dol plan to take their victims for as much as they can before absconding with their ill-gotten gains. However Lovewit’s sudden impending return, and a scheme to find a husband for the wealthy Dame Pliant (Teresa Avia Lim), force the trio to accelerate their timetable. Further complicating matters are Plaint’s perennially angry brother Kastril (Allen Tedder), and a skeptic named Surly (Louis Mustillo).
Sardonic at points and farcical in others, “The Alchemist” takes aim at those who loudly claim to be righteous, but in reality are only out for themselves. At the same time, the play clearly shows how there is no honor among thieves. Face, Subtle, and Dol store their booty in a massive chest, which can only be opened with three separate keys. Each of the group has one in their possession, thus ensuring the grudging compliance of the others.
Also made clear are the problems that arise when authorities try to prosecute such criminals. Any such victims are unwilling to press charges, as it would require them to publicly reveal how they have been fooled.
It’s a great joy to watch the procession of willing dupes march in and out of Lovewit’s home, as well as the various jousting that goes on between the participants. Also quite fun is seeing Face and Subtle forced to often and rapidly change clothes, postures, and accents to accommodate the con of the moment. These rapid changes are accomplished thanks to a series of carefully positioned doors and other passageways in Alexis Distler’s set. The entrances and exits of the characters help to add to the overall frenticism of the proceedings. Kudos also to Jesse Berger’s whip-smart direction during these scenes, and Tilly Grimes’s costume design work throughout.
Rogers is the standout among the cast. His role allows him to masquerade as a number of over-the-top characters. Yet, crucially, he plays them all seriously enough so that the humor comes not so much from him, but rather from the total belief of all around him.
Felciano is good as a quiet supporting type who yearns for a leading role—or at least a more featured part (a running gag in the play)—in the various cons. Also quite funny is Tedder as Kastril, who never met a quarrel he didn’t like. Elsewhere, Christopher is funny as the seemingly empty-headed Drugger.
The only thing which prevents the show from being absolutely perfect are some of the choices made by Hatcher with his adaptation. He at times goes too far with jokes, stating the obvious when something subtler would do. When a delivery man sneezes and then proclaims he’s been “leeched,” we get the obvious reference to the current pandemic. Yet the fact that the story is taking place during a plague, along with several other references dropped in, makes the aforementioned bit unnecessary.
Also, the show’s denouement would have worked far better if hints of it had been mentioned earlier on. Then, the audience would have been able to ponder the possibility, instead of it coming seemingly out of thin air.
“The Alchemist” offers an enjoyable look at those who end up getting exactly what’s coming to them, often in the most unexpected way. The entire experience an excellent fit for the time in which it was originally staged, as well as the one we are living in now.
Red Bull Theater
New World Stages
340 W. 50th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Dec. 19, 2021
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.