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A CurtainUp Review
The Countess

The Countess at the Beckett Theatre
Some Facts About The Leading Characters

The Countess In Its Third Home: The Lambs
By Elyse Sommer

Gregory Murphy’s The Countess is one of those little engines that could stories of a little show with long legs. It began life Off-Off-Broadway at the Greenwich Street Theatre in the Soho where I saw it somewhat too soon for a fair appraisal. When it moved to the Samuel Beckett in last June, Chloe Veltman took another look. Her enthusiasm was seconded by the rest of the critical community and, most importantly, theater goers. It even got the stamp of approval from descendants of Mallais and the members of the Ruskin Society who came to see it.

If the 42nd Street Development Corp. hadn't made it necessary to vacate the premises, The Countess would still be at the Beckett Theatre where it logged 353 performances. Happily, its homelessness was brief. On April 24th The Countessmoved into the Lamb's Theatre on April 24th where we went to see how it had weathered the transfer. Since the appraisal of the play at the Beckett is still valid and will provide the necessary details about what it's about, just a few comments about the current production.

This gem of a theater, with its clubby wood panelled atmosphere, seems made to order for a Victorian drama with its title character in elegant hoop-skirted dresses, the men in stylish cravats. Director Ludovica Villar-Hauser has taken full advantage of the larger stage. The production now has the grander, more full-bodied aura it deserves. The story is bookended between the voice-over prologue and epilogue (the latter nicely filling in what happens to Effie Ruskin, the Countess of the title while ending the story exactly when it should). It begins in the Ruskin's London parlor, moves to the small Scottish cottage where the lid comes off the marital Pandora's box as love flowers between Effie and Everett Millais. After the intermission, it's back to the Ruskins' London home (the transformation from cozy cottage to grand London home is most effectively and efficiently accomplished).

Larger and grander, as this Countess may be, it nevertheless retains its warmth and intimacy. The puzzle of how the distinguished and highly principled art critic John Ruskin stumbled into the villain's role of Gregory Murphy's marital chiller remains as intriguing as ever. James Riordan, as Ruskin, far from growing complacent, seem to have used the long run at the Beckett to fully mine every Freudian nuance of his role. The same is true of his colleagues. The two new additions to the cast are Richard Seff and Anita Keal as the senior Ruskins. They play these in-laws from Hell with more understatement than their predecessors, Honora Fergusson and Frederick Neumann, which, at least to this viewer, represents an improvement.

While the ticket prices have gone up since the play's modest downtown beginnings, it's easy to see why -- with its eight-member cast, multiple sets and opulent costumes, this is not a bare bones production. Given that you're paying for two and a half hours of high quality theater, you're hardly overpaying even at the top ticket price (the wide orchestra, provides excellent sightlines even for those sitting in the less expensive side sections). It's also worth noting that, in addition to the larger stage and more ample seating capacity, there's a large and comfortable lounge with such atmospheric $1 snacks as scones (though without clotted cream) to make even the intermission enjoyable. -- Elyse Sommer

By Gregory Murphy
Directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser
Cast (in order of appearance): James Riordan, Richard Sell, Ana Keal, John Quilty, Kristin Griffin, Jy Murphy, Jennifer Woodward
Set design: Mark Symczak
Costume design: Christopher Lione, Elizabeer: Dewey Dellay
Lambs, 130 W. 44th St., (Broadway/6th Av), 239-6200
Reopened 4/24/2000 for open run; official re-opening 5/11/2000
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/08/2000 performance

The Countess at the Beckett by Chloe Veltman

"How is it that all bachelors marry goddesses, but husbands live only with women?" mourns John Ruskin to his eager at protege, Everett Millais, from their cozy Parnassal retreat in Scotland.

In Gregory Murphy's intelligent and lovely dramatization of the private life of Britain's foremost Victorian art critic and aesthete, Ruskin's wife Effie scrabbles at the foot of the holy mountain while her husband shouts abuse from the top. "You're not what I think a woman should be" he tells her, and yet more plainly: "I don't like the way you look, sound or move."

Vainly attempting to conceal his own sexual and mental neurosis under nervously beetling brows, Ruskin tells his wife she is sick and mad, until she almost comes to believe it herself. Like Prince Bolkonski in War and Peace, these nineteenth century husbands would sooner go off to war than admit their wives. In a drama which frequently pits desire against the constraints of society, Ruskin cold shoulders both his spouse and the marital code of conduct by deliberately leaving Effie alone with Millais.

Tripping over his heels with innocent questions concerning his mentor's connubial iciness, Millais' reverence for Ruskin fades as his infatuation for Mrs. Ruskin (whom he nicknames The Countess) grows. In an erotically incandescent scene over a sketch-book, Millais deftly shows Effie how to draw the perfect rose with a few simple strokes. Prickly with need for one another but caught out by propriety, the energy of a longing kiss begs for a way around the law.

With every diabolical gesture of Ruskin's, so Effie's outward indignation grows. As the object of one man's hatred and another man's love, a third Effie emerges from Jennifer Woodward's startling acting: a defiant, sexy Scotswoman, exhausted from juggling poisoned stoicism and unrequited lust. Never sentimental, but brisk, sweet and incredulous, Effie allures as much as James Riordan's Ruskin repels. Playing the villain with deadly panache, Riordan also endows Ruskin with an eerie sense of humor, obscuring the darkness inside. Jy Murphy's fresh-faced ingenue provides a shining foil to Riordan's shadiness; as the drama unfolds, we watch him progress from a naive pupil to a master-artist, lover and spouse.

Following an awkwardly cramped opening on the tiny forestage, the play slides gracefully from start to finish with hardly a line out of place. Mixing his palette with humor and seething drama, Gregory Murphy's rich dramaturgical canvas is matched by Ludovica Villar-Hauser's careful direction and some remarkable ensemble acting. Frederick Neumann and Honora Fergusson are fabulously reactionary as Ruskin's puritanical parents. In a funny comedy-of-manners scene between the indignant couple and Effie's confidante, the witty and sensible Lady Eastlake (Kristin Griffith), the play steps momentarily into the world of Congreve and Wycherly.

While melodrama and rose-tinged romance swathe this Victorian tale in conventions of the era, it remains a thoroughly modern production. Villar-Hauser keeps the emotion bubbling gently, an undertow pulling against a swiftly-moving narrative. The atmospheric jazz-piano music by Dewey Dellay punctuates every scene with a soulful aside, as Mark Symczak's compact sets and Christopher Lione's gorgeous costumes provide a colorful commentary. In The Countess, anti-Romantic sentiment reconciles itself with the power of the imagination: somewhere between abused muse and lofty countess, lies a natural, everyday woman.

By Gregory Murphy
Directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser
With Honora Fergusson, Kristin Griffin, Jy Murphy, Frederick Neumann, John Quilty, James Riordan, Jennifer Woodward
Set design: Mark Symczak
Costume design: Christopher Lione
Lighting design: Stewart Wagner
Sound design: Randy Morrison
Composer: Dewey Dellay
Samuel Beckett, The Samuel Beckett Theatre 410 West 42nd Street (212/594-2826)
Reopened 6/15/99 for unspecified run
Reviewed by Chloe Veltman based on 6/22/99 performance

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Some Facts About The Leading Characters

John Ruskin's professional star continued to rise, not only as an artist and critic but scientist, poet, environmentalist, philosopher. He founded the Ruskin School of Drawing where his lectures were always crowded. But despite his prolific intellectual success, his private life remained a mess. His marriage from Effie who, incidentally was a cousin, was annulled. in 1954. While she caught his fancy at age 12, she so repulsed him as a woman that he couldn't consummate the marriage. Just four years later, at age 39, he became infatuated with a 10-year-old girl named Rose de la Touche and would have married her when she came of age if her parents hadn't interfered.. When Rose died in 1875 he became subject to bouts of depression from which he suffered for the rest of his life

As for Effie (born Ephemia Chalmers Gray), she did find happiness and with none other than Millais.

Lady Eastlake's scrappy rescue mission of her friend was par for a woman who was not only married to a powerful man but forged a career of her own. A year after the events of the play, her husband, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake became director of the National Gallery. She was active in preserving his legacy. In her own right, Lady Eastlake (that's Lady Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake) was an essayist and translator. -- Elyse Sommer

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©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer.
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