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A CurtainUp Review
Theophilus North

I'm sick to hell of doing what's right, what's expected of me. For thirty years I've been plagued by a life of auxiliary verbs: 'should' and 'ought.' The time has come for me to dive into the world and rejoice at the ripples I make. My mind is alive with options. ---Theophilus North, in scene 1 which is entitled The Nine Ambitions which are part of the options under consideration and symbolize Thornton Wilder's vision of America as a place where you can reinvent yourself.

Giorgio Litt  as Theophilus North
Giorgio Litt as Theophilus North (Photo: Theresa Squire)
Thornton Wilder was over seventy when his 1973 novel, Theophilus North was published. It was his last major work and filled with his trademark witty ruminations on life. The title character's search for a more adventurous life than that of a school teacher drew on Wilder's own young manhood -- serving in the Coast Guard in Newport, Rhode Island, graduating from Yale University and teaching at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.

Unlike the novel, which was narrated by the elderly North from a distance of fifty years (think the Stage Manager from Our Town), Matthew Burnett's play adaptation is structured as a forward moving narrative, substituting the impetuous thirty-year-old for the novel's older and wiser narrator reflecting over his time in Newport. This makes for a more direct experience of Wilder's young everyman abroad in search of excitement and his place in a world -- to be sure, that "abroad" turned out to be just 180 miles from the New Jersey town from which he ventures forth. With the endearing young Giorgio Litt as Theophilus and under the keen direction of the aptly named Keen company's founder and artistic director Carl Forsman, this works very well indeed.

Like other Wilder plays, Theophilus North, leaves it to the actors to evoke the scenery as part of their portrayals. Litt and the multi-role playing support cast handle this most effectively, as do the designers. Beowulf Boritt's spare but beautiful platform set is backed by a blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds (the only realistic prop being the bike that takes the place of a broken down car represented by one of the female actors and a chair). Theresa Squire's lovely 1920s costumes as well as Daniel Baker and Josh Bradford's subtle sound and lighting design all help to make this production a charming, funny and enjoyable experience.

Essentially Theophilus North is what the German's call a "bildungsroman" (a story that formulates its leading character's ideas for life choices). The play's hero, whose God fearing parents gave him a first name meaning lover of God, starts his formative adventure by quitting his teaching job and heading in the direction indicated by his surname.

The time is 1926 and this bright young Yale graduate has ambitions that range from anthropologist to rascal. Above all he wants nothing to do with anything "bound up with directorates and boards of governors" that would keep him from being a "free man.," His get-away chariot is a used jalopy (Regan Thompson, with a head bandage to indicate its battered condition, in the first of numerous outstandingly played roles). When the car breaks down in Newport, RI just a few hours out of New Jersey, Theophilus gamely makes the best of things. He books a 50-cents a night room at the YMCA and enlists a friend of his brother's to help him find work as a tutor, tennis coach and renderer of assorted other services.

True to his determination to remain a free man Theophilus turns down unreasonable demands such as one woman's request to read to her three children for three hours each Thursday with the explanation that "it is impossible to hold one child's attenion on a book for longer than forty minutes" and a suggestion that "they be encouraged to play with matches." Though not always sure how to carry out some of the jobs he does take on, Theophilus is gutsy and resourceful enough to bring off even such impossible assignments as preventing a rebellious heiress (Virginia Kull) from eloping.

The young adventurer's first employer, the elegant Mrs. Fenwick (Regan Thompson again), has not one but two jobs for him: giving tennis lessons to her fourteen-year-old daughter Eloise (Virginia Kull, who is adorable both as the angelic teenager and the runaway heiress), and persuading her snobbish sixteen-year-old son Charles (Joe Delafield) to overcome his aversion to speaking French with attention to genders and tenses. Upon realizing that Charles's problem is less with grammar than never having overcome his immature overreaction to anything risqué, Theophilus uses the ensuing French lessons to the young man get over his unresolved pre-teen anxieties. Like the French lesson in The History Boys, you don't have to speak French to understand what's going on.

As quite a different sort of employer, the controlling daughter of a rich old man (Geddeth Smith), Regan Thompson is less than pleased when Theophilus, instead of reading to her homebound old dad, fires him up to get out of his bathrobe and be more active. But my favorite of the versatile Ms. Thompson's many incarnations is Myra, the outspoken Wisconsin born, pregnant wife of a wealthy inventor (Joe Delafield) who also engages Theophilus as a reader, in this case to wile away the doctor recommended afternoons of rests. Myra's outspokenness makes this a tough chore. She regards Shakespeare as "piffle" and thinks the Scarlet Letter's adulteress should have just ripped off that letter and moved to Chicago.

By the end of the summer the various connections with his wealthy employers and their relatives have changed many of their lives -- and of course, Theophilus himself is wiser and more firmly focused. He's no closer to traveling the globe than in scene one, but the discoveries he's made about the people he's met and himself have been a life-altering adventure just the same.

Sentimental? Sure. A bit too drawn out? Probably. But, in this harsh and cynical world we live in, it's nice to spend time with this impetuous young man who manages to travel far within himself even though he never ventures far from his own backyard.

The Matchmaker;
Our Town (Broadway
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our town (Off- broadway)
The Skin Of Our Teeth/ (London)
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The Skin Of Our Teeth (Berkshires)

Matthew Burnet's adaptation of novel by ThorntonWilder
Directed by Carl Forsman.
Cast: Giorgio Litt as Theophilus; also Margaret Daly, Joe Delafield, Brian Hutchison, Virginia Kull, Geddeth Smith, and Regan Thompson.
Sets: Beowulf Borritt
Lighting: Josh Bradford
Costumes: Theresa Squire
Sound:Daniel Baker
Keen Company at Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200
From 9/05/06 to 10/04/06; opening 9/14/06.
Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM, with an additional matinee on Saturday, October 14 at 2 PM.
Tickets are $40.
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