Adaptations of the character-packed novels of Charles Dickens should be all the rage in post-MTV theater. In fact, Nicholas Nickleby famously entertained successfully for 8-1/2 hours in a pell-mell Broadway staging back in 1981.
A BUNCH OF CHARACTERS: Sullivan, Jim Brown, Marg Capelli, and Kinnane.
So 2nd Story Theatre is staging David Copperfield (through December 10), adapted by Matthew Francis, with occasional music composed by Mia Soteriou. Directing is John Michael Richardson.
It tells the tale of Copperfield from birth to marriageable adulthood, all from his perspective. This is no small matter, since the story is based somewhat upon the life of the author. Dickens declared in its 1850 preface that “Of all my books, I like this the best,” even though by that time he had already written such classics as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
The complicated story gives us a carnival side-show of time-tested early 19th-century villains and dupes, naïfs and wily schemers, colorful characters all, in 48 finger-snapping scenes.
On a thrust stage, Rudy Sanda plays the grown-up Copperfield, for the first half narrating the action while 10-year-old Evan Kinnane does a superb job of keeping us interested in the boy’s travails, which are plentiful. The strong-willed David doesn’t take well to a caning, so he bites his new stepfather, Mr. Murdstone (Christopher Perrotti). As a result, when his mother dies, his schooling stops and he is promptly sent off to cork wine bottles in a factory. Life proceeds in such up and down fashion.
More than two dozen actors and more than that number of characters are marched double-time through the two brisk hours. The downside of this welter of cameo appearances is that few of the characters are developed past the high points of their whimsical attributes.
That said, the 2nd Story troupe entertains us nicely with many of the comical vignettes, usually with incidental characters. Lighthearted melodramas are an opportunity, after all, for shameless scene stealing. So Jim Sullivan gives us the mutely hilarious sight gag of the tousled-haired Mr. Dick, an amiable simpleton; and Margaret Melozzi is even funnier as the earnest but self-deluded Mrs. Micawber, her optimism wrestling with better judgment as she struggles to remain supportive of her hapless husband. Similarly, F. William Oakes all but turns Mr. Micawber inside out with the man’s need to stay cheerful while his livelihood, and the survival of his expanding brood, is threatened.
Dickens’s father was similarly bankrupted, his family forced to live with him in prison for a time. So if we take David Copperfield as a rough chart of the author’s own navigating the shoals of life, the novel, and even this stage abbreviation, is instructive. Copperfield was alert to human contradictions: the brave face before the fear; the smile above the suspiciously squinting eyes.
Ah yes, Uriah Heep. Perotti wisely doesn’t over-simplify this classic paragon of two-faced villainy. He delivers the requisite obsequiousness and flattery but without stooped, hand-rubbing glee. But most people are kind to poor little David. Both his kindly nanny, Mrs. Peggotty (Lynne Collinson), and his openhearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Susie B. Powers) give him shelter. He eventually marries the sweet but simpleminded Dora Spenlow (Laura Sorensen), but is also fond of Emily, Pegotty’s niece, who is later ruined by David’s charming, self-centered older friend James Steerforth (Kyle Maddock). And so on.