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A CurtainUp Review

"War is Peace. . . Freedom is Slavery. . . Ignorance is Strength. . . Big Brother is Watching You. . . " — the slogans of Orwell's nightmarish world.
Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney
George Orwell's novel about a world in which truth becomes "doublespeak" has never been out of print since its publication in 1949. In fact, it's sold millions of copies worldwide and several movie and stage adaptations have had viewers gnashing their teeth for years.

Unsurprisingly, with Trump and his mouthpieces adding "alternative facts" and "fake News" to our vocabulary, Big Brother's replacement of "oldspeak" with a "newspeak" is more scarily true to life than ever. No wonder the book's sales have soared and that a fascinating documentary film, The Road to 1984 has been popular at Acorn TV ( my review of the film ).

Neither is it all that surprising that the latest page to stage version of the book is now playing at Broadway's elegant re-opened Hudson Theater with a starry cast — unlike two previous Off-Broadway stagings: The 1904 Orwell Project which featured both 1984 and Animal Farm, also Godlight Theatre Company's 2009 adaptation at 59E59 Theaters .

As if you needed proof that there's never been a time when 1984 wasn't timely, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan actually created and staged their adaptation four years ago when the referential aspects pertained to the Edward Snowden affair. In any event, it was a big hit in London and DC where Curtainup's critics had their say about it. ( Lizzie Loveridge's review in London and Susan Davidson's review in DC .

I wrote the above as a prequel to my seeing and reviewing the New York production of this new presentation of the 70-year old granddaddy of dystopian novels. Now that I've seen it, I'm sorry to say that my main reaction is disappointment.

Granted the horrors Winston Smith is subjected to in Room 101 are already a reality in North Korea and millions of people live in endlessly at war countries ruled by dictators. And Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney are riveting, the doomed diary keeper and the always outstanding Birney as his cool and collected torturer, as is Olivia Wilde as Winston's aggressive and also doomed lover Julia. There's also no denying that the stagecraft used to depict Winston's truly horrendous ordeal, as well as the entire plot of Orwell's fable is impressive. Unfortunately, the stagecraft is so overpowering that it diminishes the human elements that would truly stir us emotionally and rouse our sense of outrage.

The theatrical wizardry, and especially those final stomach-turning bloody tooth and fingernail pulling torture scenes are indeed intensely visceral and hard to watch. But it's all too over the top to feel real and thus respond to emotionally . For this viewer, it wasn't nearly as upsetting as the cumulative horror of increasingly truth-bashing assaults on good government news seen on TV, ipad and phone screens.

While the purported extreme reaction of audiences at the Hudson has prompted the producers to restrict admission to anyone under age 13, I observed nothing more extreme than some people putting their heads down or just shutting their eyes. In fact, when the evil O'Brien's goons got going with their bloody tasks, I heard several outbursts of giggles. (I've heard no one laugh at one of President Trump's unpresidential, crude and untruthful tweets or his communication staff's briefings).

Over cooked as the stagecraft is, it does make for an often dynamic, punchy 101 minutes (in case you didn't notice, the listed running time is slyly given an extra minute as a nod to Room 101). And the adapters have cleverly used the glossary that more than the novel's characterizations (never Orwell's strongest suite), contained the stuff that has become part of our lexicon.

The glossary served as the key for framing the story with a book club group that moves us from past to present and future. Though it tends to make us as unable as Winston to answer Big Brother's frequently heard "do you know where you are" it does allow for a somewhat hopeful epilogue that points to an end of the Big Brother regime and the possibility that either Winston's diary survived or that he and his being turned into an "unperson" never happened.

The way the book club discussions and all the other scenes are very effectively integrated into Chloe Lamford's essentially single set and expanded and enhanced by Tim Reid's video design. The jarring blackouts and bursts of blinding lights between scenes do ratchet up the tension.

The three main actors are ably supported by the rest of the ensemble. But like Alan Lyddiard who did the excellent adaptation for the less high profile Orwell Project, Ice and Macmillan found themselves unable to let the eerie, joyless world of the first act speak sufficiently for itself, and avoid letting the torture scenes of the second act become melodramatic.

Well-intentioned as this and other current political dramas are, in this case Orwell's ever worthy story comes off as catering to the same taste for super-real sadism that for years flooded movie screens with grade B Nazi movies and made a lot of money for their producers.

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Adaptation of George Orwell novel
Adapted and Directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.
Cast: Reed Birney (O'Brien), Olivia Wilde (Julia), Tom Sturridge (Winston), Wayne Duvall (Parsons), Carl Hendrick Louis (Martin), Nick Mills (Syme)(Charrington), Cara Seymour (Mrs. Parsons).
Scenic & Costume Design: Chloe Lamford
Lighting Design Natasha Chivers
Sound Design: Tom Gibbons
Video Design: Tim Reid
Running time; approx. 101 minutes, no intermission.
The Hudson Theater on 44th Street
From: 5/18/17; opening 6/22/17; closing 10/08/17
Note: An age restriction policy has been put in place which states that audience members must be age 13 to enter the Hudson Theater.

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