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A CurtainUp Review
H. Finn, Esq.
By Les Gutman
There is a form of entertainment I would call the Theater of Recognition. (Parody is its most familiar style.) It succeeds by having its audience recognize the references upon which it is constructed. Sometimes, this approach is subtle; in H. Finn, Esq., it is blatant.
H. Finn (Michael Genet) is a New Orleans legal aid lawyer with a con-man client (Gary Lowery) who uses the name Tom Sawyer, among others. We are told H. Finn, Esq. may, or may not, be about the great-great grandsons of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. It is most assuredly an open invitation to recall the escapades of Mark Twain's most famous pair of boys. The play is populated with current day versions of a host of Twain's characters, and riddled with modernized variations on the most famous moments (not to mention words and ideas) from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
This can be fun. The more devoted a fan of Twain, the more fun, I suspect. We have Tom, Huck (or at least H. -- one of the play's "mysteries" is that we never know for sure what it stands for), Becky, Jim, etc. Attorney and client leave New Orleans and drive upriver to Hannibal. Along the way, there are fences in need of paint, several brushes with the law and even a funeral for the not-yet-dead. The connections are all there and playwright Peter Zablotsky, making his off-Broadway debut, obviously had fun puzzling together this reincarnation of Twain's classics.
The play derives much of its comedy from the satisfactions of another sort of recognition: watching Tom ply his trade. He seems to know "every swindle in the book," and just when to use it. We get vicarious pleasure watching people get conned when we recognize right where the con is headed.
I could stop here, and say that the play is entertaining, if a bit long at two and a half hours (with two intermissions no less). But the playwright has attempted more and so I must ask, to what end? Stripped of all of its recognitional adventures, H. Finn, Esq. offers a few good laughs and little else.
The trip from New Orleans to Hannibal exposes a catalog of contemporary social ills which are intertwined with Twain's view of the world. The "system" that failed Twain fails Zablotsky as well. While both men seem to share each other's cynicism, Twain made us feel for his characters, and made us understand the various injustices of his world. Zablotsky, on the other hand, hurls them at us, and expects us to understand. As with the Twain references, the playwright depends on the audience to recognize his icons and just know why they are there. Passing references to things like cocaine and guns are to trigger, presumably, an awareness of their significance. Characters, likewise, are mostly developed simply by being identified.
Twain blended great wit with his social commentary. Zablotsky does not seem to have mastered this blend yet. His play is often funny but the humor competes with, rather than supports, whatever social commentary he is trying to offer. As his dramatic work progresses, we can hope he will learn to integrate the two.
John Ahler's direction is quite smart and effective. The play, which includes many very short scenes -- almost snapshots in some cases. In spite of the length it is generally paced well and bogs down infrequently.
Scene changes and the difficulties of the extremely narrow stage at the Kaufman Theater are handled deftly. Sets, constructed entirely of stained wood (by Luna Hirai and Walter Theodore, the latter's credits including 40 years of experience as a woodworker) are spartan and more suggestive than real. Lighting and costume design (Lawrence H. Clayton and Amy Carll, respectively) are minimal but functional. The original music by Howard Snyder seems wholly unrelated to the subject matter although nonetheless familiar. It finally occurred to me it sounded very much like the music used on TV's Seinfeld.
The two lead actors performed well. Michael Genet brought a sense of humanity and a mixture of resignation and frustration to a role described as a "burnt-out" legal aid lawyer. It's a pity the role didn't progress in a way that would have more fully utilized his obvious talent. Lowery's Tom reflected the smoothness and feigned innocence that made his con-man character quite believable. His is the strongest character in the show. The remaining five members of the cast were busy appearing briefly as between three and seven of the characters with whom Finn and Tom came in contact as the took their trip. Aside from their uneven skill at approximating the variety of accents one encounters on a trip up the Mississippi, all did a good job of finding their changing roles.