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A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery Of Charles Dickens

"It's a curious fact that whenever a one-person piece of theater crops up, it is regarded as an amiable anomaly, part of an economy drive, or an exercise in uncontrollable ego. Either or both may be true, but one thing is certain: they have been with us for some time. To those of us who practice the solo art, there is a clear distinction between a one-person show and a one-person play. The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which I'm performing at the Belasco Theater, falls firmly into the latter category. It's not about me, any more than the astonishing monodramas (as she called them) of Ruth Draper, or Julie Harris's Belle of Amherst or Robert Morse' Tru were about Miss Draper, Miss Harris or Mr. Morse."

Simon Callow
Simon Callow
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Simon Callow's above opening salvo for a pre-opening promotional article in The New York Times makes a good point. He might have added that the way the performance is staged can also contribute to its play-worthiness. He also overlooked that Elaine Stritch At Liberty, which is a solo piece about Stritch. is as much play as it is a performance piece. In the final analysis then, what makes a theatrical presentation featuring a single performer more play than show, is whether it has the feel, and fullness and entertainment value that makes audiences leave the theater feeling fully satisfied even though they've seen only one actor. The Mystery of Charles Dickens, while definitely a play falls somewhat short of giving full satisfaction except to the most dedicated Dickens fans.

Mr. Callow is a mesmerizing actor who knows how to use his body and with voice and diction that carry to the furthest reaches of a theater. There's also no arguing with the theatricality of his subject's life and works. A number of Dickens' novels have proved themselves to be popular vehicles for the large and small screen. They've been dramatized and musicalized for the stage, with the The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby being the first Broadway show to break the three-figure price barrier. Dickens' life has also been dramatized successfully on Public Television.

As directed by Patrick Garland, Callow is given every opportunity to move around the stage which minimizes the stasis of having one performer combine lecture and narrative with portraiture. Christopher Wood's set design frames the performance with great flair, giving us an exciting first glimpse of Callow through a painted scrim curtain that depicts a library, with characters that might have been drawn by Dickens illustrator George Cruikshanks seeming to leap off the book shelves.

That brings us to Peter Ackroyd's script. It's s full of interesting details about the author's life and mission and includes enough illustrative segments to provide Mr. Callow an opportunity to animate numerous characters as Dickens himself did during his extensive reading tours. The trouble is that the forty-nine characters (since the program does not include a list of characters and I quickly lost count I'm trusting this advertised number), are too much of a smorgasbord -- a little of Mr. Micawber, a little of Oliver Twist, a very tasty bit of Uriah Heep, but not a whole big bite of anything into which to really sink your teeth. The only characterizations that seem a little fuller are the Sydney Carton excerpt from Tale of Two Cities near the end of the second act and the tour de force reenactment of Nancy's murder by Bill Sykes which so exhausted Dickens that it was said to have shortened his life. Thus what we have is the chance to watch a superb actor in a play that's too scattered to make a really strong and lasting impression, and that is more dramatized lecture than a drama that happens to have educational value.

If you're well-versed in Dickens' many novels, you probably won't mind the fragmentary nature of these sketches since you can fill in the missing parts from memory. If not, you'll find the biographical data interesting but are more than likely to get lost wondering who Callow is portraying so passionately. Dramatic as those skewered gold frames are, Mr. Garland and his designer might have done better coming up with a better way to identify the source of Mr. Callow's various interpretations -- perhaps some larger books with the spines out, so that the appropriate volume could roll forward as Callow-Dickens goes into full acting gear.

This is Simon Callow's first Broadway appearance. Hopefully, he will return to our shores before too long -- perhaps to play in a full-length adaptation of one of Dickens' novels.

If this play has aroused your interest in Dickens, Peter Ackroyd's detailed biography which served as source for the play is available in a hardcover edition and also in a paperback edition

For a review of a stage adaptation of Dicken's Hard Times go here .

Written by Peter Ackroyd
Directed by Patrick Garland
Starring Simon Callow
Set Design: Christopher Woods
Lighting Design: Nick Richings
Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission
>Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St, 212/ 239-6200
4/18/02-6/30/02; opening 4/25/02
Monday through Wednesday and Friday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm..; after April 28th: Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: - $65, $55, $45, $35 with limited number of student tickets at $25 will be available at all performances, day of performance only upon presentation of valid student I.D.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 26th performance.

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