The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

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"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage

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Reviews - The Contrast

Reviewed by Karl Levett

October 14, 2009

Metropolitan Playhouse, whose principal mission is to unearth forgotten plays of America's theatrical heritage, has this time reached back to the beginning. "The Contrast" by Royall Tyler is the first American play ever performed in public by a company of professional actors. Produced by the American Company at New York City's John Street Theatre in April 1787, it has as its main theme the contrast between a vigorous, fresh-paint America and a tired, corrupt Europe. It is a theme, for better or worse, that reverberates into the 21st century.

Although owing much of its manner to Sheridan's 1777 "The School for Scandal," the play's matter is completely original as it asks: How does a fledgling nation define itself? The satire is not aimed solely at the posturing of Europe; there are also sly shots at the reigning American Puritanism. The success of "The Contrast" brought about a small revolution in helping to remove the stigma against theater in the infant democracy, with plays by American authors following in rapid succession.
The basic plot is a romantic one. Mr. Van Rough (George C. Hosmer) wishes his daughter, Maria (Maria Silverman), to marry the rich, effete Billy Dimple (Bryan Close), although we see Dimple openly flirting with Letitia (Tovah Suttle) and Charlotte Manly (Amanda Jones). Charlotte's brother, the earnest Colonel Henry Manly (Rob Skolits), who has done noble service in the Revolution, is resolutely single until he sights Maria. The subplot concerns Henry's rube of a servant, Jonathan (Brad Fraizer), who is goaded by Dimple's arrogant servant Jessamy (Matt Renskers) into courting Jenny, the maid (Ali Crosier). In the character of Jonathan, Tyler originates what will become a theatrical staple: the classic stage Yankee, a hick who may be unlearned but is also spirited and independent.
This subplot, with its satire of contemporary manners and references, was once the play's highlight, but it's now obscured by time and proves difficult to stage. Meanwhile, the mechanics of the romantic comedy are put on hold; it's not until the final scene that the two themes are interwoven. Wit seems to be the province of the female characters, as in Charlotte's "I have a rage of simile upon me!" It's Van Rough who proclaims a continuing American creed: "It's money that makes the mare go!"
Director Alex Roe has given the play a modern, bare-boards staging devoid of set, costumes, and props. This makes it entirely dependent on Tyler's words and the audience's imagination, putting a strain on both. The women best capture the play's difficult style, especially Jones' scheming, flirtatious Charlotte, though Skolits' Henry has a pleasing earnestness.
Although on stage are male and female mannequins in full period costumes to assist our imaginations, the actors wear designer Sidney Fortner's unfortunate, unflattering costumes: tank tops in various colors, suggesting only that appearing in America's oldest play is a regular workout.
While the results at best are mixed, anyone with an interest in theatrical history should not miss this genuine rarity.

Metropolitan Playhouse, called a "theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" by Backstage, presents a revival of THE CONTRAST, by Royall Tyler, which was written in 1787, and was the first play by an American author to be produced in the new United States. THE CONTRAST will be given a contemporary revival in Metropolitan's home at 220 E 4th Street October 2nd through November 1st, 2009.

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, THE CONTRAST
is a comic staging of the moral and social distinction between the new American and the corrupt European. Part call to virtue, part cautionary tale, the play is all comic satire: sentimental Maria Van
Rough is betrothed from her childhood to Billy Dimple, who has returned from Europe a foppish lothario. Loathing Billy's affectations, but bound by her duty, Maria's quandary is complicated when she falls in love with the earnest soldier: Henry Manly. Tangling and untangling the dilemma on the way to a (mostly) happy resolution are calculating belles Charlotte and Letitia, scheming servant Jessamy, naïve rube Jonathan, and the boorish old Van Rough himself.

Metropolitan's production reveals the play, though styled after English Restoration Comedy, as uniquely and subversively American. Critics note that THE CONTRAST takes up the argument of the day through theater: how does a new nation define itself, both by and against the terms of its parent. This new production shows that it challenges both Old World and New World pretenses with every character, from bumpkin to fop. Its American variations on its theatrical models skewer pretense and posturing with satiric wit. The generous are as misled as the selfish, while the
lascivious are as innocent as the pure. Collectively, they paint a comic portrait of both fancy and plain folks' inadequacies and triumphs. Finding correspondence in today's cultural climate, Metropolitan Artistic Director Alex Roe's modern staging emphasizes the play's mockery of all posturing, whether moral or immoral. Costume and set are pared to near nothing, and the richly embellished world of the play is created by the actors literally out of air. The production points out the excesses of the wealthy, the folly of grandstanding righteousness, and the dangers of speculation without substance.

Royall Tyler was a well-read man of the age of Reason and a keen satirist to boot. Raised in Massachusetts, he served briefly in the Continental Army during the war, took up law in civilian life, and ultimately rose to the Vermont Supreme Court. THE CONTRAST was presented a month after his arrival on his first visit in New York in 1787. Its well received production, starring popular actor Thomas Wignell, particularly attracted attention for its author's nationality, for it was the first professional production in the new country of an American's work. Up to this time, most colonies/states banned theatrical production as immoral diversion, and professional productions where they were allowed were of European works.  (Tyler himself was unlikely to have ever seen a full length professional play before he arrived in the city.)

Metropolitan's revival is directed by Artistic Director Alex Roe, whose past credits include the
New York premieres of Elinor Fuchs' and Joyce Antler's Year One of the Empire and Peter Sagal's Denial, and the critically lauded revivals of American treasures Nowadays, Margaret Fleming and The Octoroon. The production stars Frank Anderson, Bryan Close, Ali Crosier, Brad Fraizer, Amanda Jones, Matt Renskers, Maria Silverman, Rob Skolits, and Tovah Suttle. Costume Design is by Sidney Fortner, and Lighting Design is by Christopher Weston. Metropolitan Playhouse explores America's theatrical heritage through forgotten plays of the past and new plays of American historical and cultural moment. Called an "indispensible East Village institution" by, Metropolitan has earned accolades from The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Backstage for its ongoing productions that illuminate who we are by revealing where we have come from. Recent productions include the Federal Theater Project's Power, It Pays to Advertise, Year One of the Empire, The Pioneer: 5 plays by Eugene O'Neill, Denial and The Melting Pot, as well as the Alphabet City and East Village Chronicles series.