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A CurtainUp Review

The Herbal Bed

The Herbal Bed has a number of very solid assets:
  • For starters, there's the terrific actress, Laila Robins playing Susanna Shakespeare; also Simon Jones as a Seventeenth Century type Kenneth Starr during a gripping Act 2 ecclesiastic interrogation.

  • The play examines moral dilemmas and social attitudes that seem almost eerily time-travelled to today's headlines. The time-travelling case history centers on a defamation suit brought by 30-year-old Susanna Shakespeare against a 23-year-old young gentleman who accused her of adultery and having "the running of the reynes" (ghonorea). The then-to-now correlation stems from the playwright's follow-through on the truism that where there's smoke there's fire.

  • David Jenkins' lush herb garden set brings to mind many of Shakespeare's wonderful garden metaphors and alternates very effectively with a more forbidding grey and purple cathedral. Adding to the show's visual pleasures, are Alvin Colt's handsome brown, beige and white period costumes.

  • Given these assets, is the advance press release which describes the play as "a love story, a scandal, an erotic thriller" couched in truth rather than hyperbole? These claims, like the facts laid out before the Vicar General at the above-mentioned court hearing, are partially but not completely true. The Herbal Bed embodies all the elements described but unfortunately doesn't carry them off with the dramatic and emotional impact required to make one applaud this as a harbinger of the return of the contemporary version of the well-made, idea-filled play.

    Beyond the fact that the leading players' moral dilemmas are based on an actual slander trial fought and won by Shakespeare's eldest daughter, there's also little to forge a meaningful link to the great man himself. Though the action does indeed unfold in Stratford and Susanna and her doctor husband John Hall (Tuck Milligan) live close enough to daddy's estate to have the Bard lurking around the edges of the proceedings, he is alluded to but never appears.

    Too bad he couldn't emerge from the periphery of that lush green herbal garden to help his daughter concoct a remedy that would inject more dramatic tension into the unbearably talky first act. As it is, even Ms. Robins can do just so much with the very Shakespearian Susanna imagined by Mr. Whelan. The part given her is meaty enough -- a woman too feisty to be content with the limited knowledge and passion available to her within the confines of marriage to a doctor passionate about his work but too puritanical for physical passion.

    Unfortunately the three men who are pivotal to the actual slander trial that inspired the play fail to give the support needed to make the most of either Susanna's role or theirs. Tuck Milligan as the husband who sides with the c. 1613 Religious Right wingers sweeping to power is too sincere and kind for Susanna to hate and too boring for us to care about. Armand Schultz, as the unhappily married neighbor with whom she shares "carnal knowledge" is not sufficiently different from her husband to be convincingly irresistible. He's more passionate verbally than the good doctor, when push comes to shove, it's Susanna who has to strike the metaphorical match to ignite the fire between them -- more like a flash fire, really, since nothing much happens except a flash of bared breasts. Trent Dawson as the disgruntled medical apprentice who slanders Susanna comes off more as a loutish ne'er-do-well from Stratford's lowest social echelon than the hard drinking, underachieving son of a well-fixed local family. Whether this is due to his own shortcomings in interpreting his role, Michael Attenborough's direction or both, it makes for a less than auspicious Broadway debut.

    Not having seen the London production, which was enough of a hit to prompt this transfer to Broadway, I can't say if the British version was better paced. Maybe the British cast were better able to keep things moving because they didn't have to keep concentrating on trying to sound British (no amount of concentration can give consistency to the accents in the current production). Maybe British audiences have more endurance for dialogue by people standing around like so many talking heads. But then, wasn't it the Bard himself who counseled that ""brevity is the ould of wit? "

    By Peter Whelan
    Directed by Michael Attenborough.
    With Laila Robins, Simon Jones, Armand Schultz, Tuck Milligan, Amelia Campbell and Trent Dawson..
    Set Design: David Jenkins
    Lighting Design: Beverly Emmons
    Costumes: Alvin Colt
    Eugene O'Neill, 230 W. 49th St. (239-6200). Performances 3/27/98; opens 4/16/98
    Elyse Sommer
    4/23/98: Unable to survive poor advance sales and reviews generally far worse than hours, the closing notice was posted for 4/26 making for one of the fastest "deaths" of the season-- 13 regular performances; 23 previews!

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