The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
Office: 212 995 8410 ~ Tickets: 212 995 5302

"One of my favorite downtown theaters" ~ Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
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Reviews - The Devil's Disciple

 The Irish Echo

Reviewed by Joseph Hurley - December 1-7, 2004

 The valiant and the brave

Located on East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B, the tiny Metropolitan Playhouse is off the beaten theatrical track. If, however, the group's current production of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" is any indication of the kind of work the Metropolitan people are capable of, the journey is well worth the effort.

The play, dating from 1897, is probably the closest Shaw ever came to writing a pure romantic comedy, except, perhaps, "Arms and the Man," which he had written three years earlier.

It's also the only time, apart from the great titular epics, "Caesar and Cleopatra" and "Saint Joan," that the Dublin-born giant ever included in one of his plays an individual who had actually lived, in this case the aristocratic Gen. John Burgoyne, the disgraced commander of the British forces at the battle of Saratoga in October 1777. The role is played here with admirable grace and style by London-born actor George Taylor.

"The Devil's Disciple" is part of a series of productions the Metropolitan Playhouse, an immaculate and inviting second-floor space with just 51 seats, terms its "Season of Heroes." The term is apt, since it would be difficult to find anywhere in the Shavian canon a purer example of self-sacrificing stage heroism than Richard Dudgeon, the rogue adventurer whose self-description gives the play its title.

Dudgeon, commonly known as "Dick," is the warm, affectionate heart of the play, here played with conspicuous wit, charm and intelligence by the dashing Alex Roe, the organization's artistic director since 2001.

The Metropolitan's audiences sit on three sides of the snug auditorium, one flight up from the street. The performing space is a floor of stained wood planking, raised to the point where the spectators' eyes are at about the level of the handsome colonial-style belt buckles furnished by Rebecca Lustig's surprisingly elaborate costumes.

Shaw has placed this brisk and surprisingly compassionate comedy in "Westerbridge town in the colony of New Hampshire," in 1777, the year that would prove to be such an unfortunate one for Burgoyne, known to his men as "Gentleman Johnny" because of his good breeding and perhaps his unmilitary sense of conviviality.

Dick Dudgeon is, by all accounts, the scapegrace of a pious, even rigid New Hampshire family, a clan that appears to consider itself among the best, if not the outright finest, of families the New Hampshire Colony can boast.

The occasion for Dudgeon's return to the family home is the recent death of his father, leaving behind a widow, Annie Dudgeon (Laura Livingston), a young female child of questionable heritage, Essie Dudgeon (Shana Dowdeswell), and Dick's somewhat hapless younger brother, Christy Dudgeon (Michael Hardart). Eventually, there are a couple of uncles, Titus and William (Ian Gould and Nicholas Waterfall, respectively). The starchy Annie, who treats the innocent Essie as though she were some sort indentured slave, rules the home with an iron hand, and it is immediately clear that her relationship with Dick stands in need of significant improvement, an alteration that seems very unlikely to actually take place. Actually, the mother's death intervenes.

The charming, free-living Dick describes himself as a "disciple of the devil," and doesn't seem much disturbed when no one in his family gives him an argument on the point. The only family member who seems to operate on his compassionate wavelength is, unsurprisingly, Essie.

The local parson, Anthony Anderson (Mike Durkin), may have been working against the colony's British masters, and it appears that his activities are about to be discovered, and that he is in mortal danger.

His wife, Judith (Susannah Mackintosh), is considerably younger than her husband, and, for all her efforts to walk a straight and narrow path, she seems just a bit more than mildly intrigued by Dick Dudgeon when he appears on the scene.

What the unstoppable Shaw may have had in mind when he laid his plans for "The Devil's Disciple" could have been a kind of lightweight variant of themes employed by Charles Dickens in "A Tale of Two Cities," in which a brave man goes to his death in place another individual, a valiant hero condemned to death for his political activities.

But Shaw, after all, was essentially a comedian, and so Dick Dudgeon, nearly hanged in place of pastor Anderson, whose identity he has more or less accidentally assumed, gets a last-minute reprieve and lives to charm again.

"The Devil's Disciple" premiered in 1897 New York, which seems only fitting, since the play is the one occasion in which the Dublin-born titan wrote what might be thought of as an "American" play. Metropolitan Playhouse, working on a modest budget, has come up with a spirited and enjoyable revival.

  nytheatre.com

Reviewed by Martin Denton - November 19, 2004

 I've said this before: one of the unavoidable pitfalls of my job is that there are always fewer and fewer terrific classic plays left to discover. So when one pops up, I get very excited, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why I am so high on the revival of The Devil's Disciple at Metropolitan Playhouse. It's a delight—all the more so because its script, by George Bernard Shaw, was unfamiliar to me.

This is a play of the American Revolution, and although acts of war constitute the main action, the real subject is the revolution of ideas and intellect that happened as soon as John Hancock wrote his oversized signature across the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. Shaw takes neither sides nor prisoners here, having British General Burgoyne quip

Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like: it is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.

And an American minister named Anthony Anderson says

Have your realized that though you may occupy towns and win battles, you cannot conquer a nation?

It's good to hear all this intelligent chatter; it feels somehow timely, no? It's useful to ponder the play's central dilemma as well, which is how to reconcile the points of a view of, on the one hand, a man of religion and pragmatism who values action, and on the other, a romantic idealist who thinks he can become a hero by believing in something—but is proved to be a fool and a coward, if a notably likable one.

The fool is the title character, a fellow called Richard Dudgeon. When we first meet him, he has come to claim his late father's estate from a brazenly pious mother who dislikes and misunderstands him and a younger brother (Christy) who is a bit of a halfwit. Dick cuts a dashing and dangerous figure, particularly in contrast to the rest of his family. His uncle, the family's previous black sheep, has just been hanged as a rabble rouser by the Redcoats in a nearby town, and Dick fears that someone in this community will also be made an example of by the oncoming British. He correctly predicts that it will be the town's minister, the aforementioned Anderson; and when the soldiers arrive, Dick bravely pretends that he is Anderson, to the great shock and then admiration of the minister's lovely young wife, Judith.

Shaw brilliantly balances comedy with more sober concerns, giving Dick a superb foil in the suave, cynical General Burgoyne, a man who refuses to take anything seriously—he's like having Captain Shotover (from Heartbreak House) as Secretary of Defense. Shaw also inserts a thoroughly hilarious scene in which the witness secured to confirm or deny Dick's assertion that he is Anderson turns out to be the duller Dudgeon, Christy, who isn't at all sure what to make of his brother's charade. (Michael Hardart, who plays Christy, makes the most of this segment's significant comic opportunities.)

Metropolitan Playhouse, which is known for revivals of American plays of the same vintage as The Devil's Disciple, does well by the play. Director Yvonne Conybeare keeps things moving briskly, and keeps all of Shaw's balloons—the romantic one, the sly, cynical one, and the serious, intellectual one—continually afloat. A simple, congenial set by Ryan Scott serves the piece nicely, as do Rebecca Lustig's period costumes and Douglas Filomena's appropriate lighting.

There are two superb central performances here. Alex Roe, Metropolitan's artistic director, takes the stage for the first time in several years as the engaging rebel Dick Dudgeon; one hopes he will tread the boards more frequently, for he is commanding and fascinating as this complicated character, a more-than-convincing romantic lead and a just-as-believable rascally rogue. George Taylor, who has an impressively distinguished acting resume, takes the role of Burgoyne, and delivers a performance of delicious wit and depth; he doesn't just get the timing of the General's quips right—he shows us the worldly man of experience underneath.

The other actors are fine also: I've already mentioned Hardart as Christy Dudgeon; also noteworthy are Mike Durkin as Reverend Anderson, Susannah Mackintosh as his wife Judith, and Ian Gould as Burgoyne's second-in-command Major Swindon.