By Samuel L. Leiter . . .

As I left Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, where the Red Bull Theater is reviving The Alchemist, Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy of 1610, two reviewers I know signaled to me their delight with what they’d just seen. I guiltily acknowledged my own somewhat less than delighted response.

The Red Bull specializes in updated adaptations of rarely seen classics. In 2012, when they did Jonson’s Volpone or the Fox, I pointed to director Jesse Berger’s program notes, in which he declared: “Jonson himself said that the aim of comedy should not be to provoke easy laughter by slapstick farce and bawdry.” I pointed out, though, that “his own production . . . is precisely guilty of doing just that. It’s as broad a staging of the play as you could imagine.” I’m afraid that Mr. Berger, who also helms The Alchemist, has overdone it again.

The Alchemist, despite a plot declared one of literature’s three most perfect by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, typically receives resuscitation assistance, just as do Jonson’s other comedies, whose language and machinations can be even less accessible to modern audiences than Shakespeare’s. In the present case, adapter Jeffrey Hatcher has taken multiple liberties, mingling contemporary language with parody versions of Jacobean speech (“Telleth me about it”), not to mention present-day vulgarities and anachronisms that thumb their nose at historical authenticity, the kind that often get a laugh when spoken by people in period costumes and wigs. Someone even offers a version of that classic James Bond song, “Goldfinger.”

Manoel Felciano, Reg Rogers, Jennifer Sanchez

What transpires in four locales in the original is here confined to one, with the large cast reduced to ten. The plot’s multiple strands have been squeezed into a two-act corset lasting an hour and 50 minutes. Mr. Hatcher also has strengthened the roles of the two female characters, because, well, sexual politics. Jonson’s farce requires rapid pacing, of course. The question is, must it be a supercharged, 0-to-3 door-slammer that would make the Marx Brothers at their zaniest look like novices?

The plot presents three London sharpers, Subtle (Reg Rogers, shouting from start to finish), Face (Manoel Felciano, not far behind), and the whorish Dol Common (Jennifer Sanchez, broad where a bawd should be broad). This felonious trio has been using the home owned by the absent Lovewit, Face’s employer (Face is really a butler called Jeremy), to carry out their cons while the master is away. Criminal  

This involves a cross-section of foolish Londoners who practically come begging to be cozened out of their money and possessions. The point, naturally, is to ridicule greed (among other foibles): “A fool and his money are soon parted,” as someone once said. The chief con is making people believe that Subtle is an alchemist, able to turn baser metals into gold.

But the trio also has other tricks up their sleeves, as seen when they learn that Lovewit will be home in two hours. Grasping buggers that they are, they agree to use the limited time to fill their trunk, already bulging, to the very brim. Thus, as the clock ticks, their wildly exaggerated dupes collide with one another in a tinderbox of comical encounters as the three crooks shift from one cartoonish guise to another before the master (completely hidden in a suit of armor) walks in on them.

Reg Rogers, Jacob Ming-Trent, Louis Mustillo

Ripe for the plucking are the horny Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent), verbally virtuosic; his companion, Surly (Louis Mustillo), a skeptically surly tough guy claiming to be from the Dutch colony of Brooklyn, offering grounds for mobster dialect and attitude; Abel Drugger (Nathan Christopher), a doofus-like, young tobacconist; the flaxen-haired Ananias (Stephen DeRosa), a fanatical, Vatican-hating Anabaptist, with a bizarre Dutch accent; Kastril (Allen Tedder), an angry youth intent on learning how to quarrel; his attractive sister, Dame Pliant (Teresa Avia Lim); and Dapper (Carson Elrod), a foppish lawyer’s clerk whose several rings include one whose location you’d rather not know about. Each actor is a talented clown, with individual moments of comic glitter, and each brings distinctive physical and—mostly—English-accented colorings to their shenanigans. But since their chief goal appears to get laughs at any cost rather than create even a modicum of reality, the play becomes secondary to their overstated carryings on.

Manoel Felciano, Allen Tedder, Nathan Christopher

The action requires split-second timing: doors slam closed here only to instantly open there (think The Play That Goes Wrong), and people scamper not only in and out, but up and down the sturdy staircase dominating Alex Distler’s set. Not only has Rick Sordelet (credited for “action movement”), staged a comic duel on those steps, I imagine he had a hand in creating the madcap chase scene that earned applause the night I went.

What prevents all this from being funnier than it is—and I admit to chuckling now and then—is that the play begins at fever pitch, with lines yelled rather than spoken, and never lets up. No time is taken to establish the situation, however exaggerated, as potentially grounded in reality, even though it takes place in a quite realistic early seventeenth century home, with abundant wood trim and railings, and stained glass windows.

Teresa Avia Lim, Nathan Christopher

Although this Alchemist too infrequently spins its content into comic gold, it does have some shiny nuggets in its treasure chest. Among them are Tilly Grimes’s witty costumes, which even take advantage of the fact that the play is set during a plague to bring on characters wearing very familiar masks. The gold spandex outfit worn by Dol as the Queen of Fairies (don’t ask) is a particular gem, but there are many others that could be cited.

Your reaction to The Alchemist will vary according to how much shtick your antibodies can resist. While I occasionally showed mild symptoms of succumbing, I remained largely uninfected by its comedic virus.

The Alchemist opened November 21 at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) for a limited run thru December 19th. Tickets HERE

Photos: Carol Rosegg