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Reviews - The Drunkard


Saved, Before Alcoholics Anonymous

Of all the old war horses of the American theater, few have been more durable than “The Drunkard,” W. H. Smith’s cautionary tale on the evils of John Barleycorn. The original 1844 staging in Boston was for a temperance crusade and was deadly serious; a 1933 production in Los Angeles was played strictly for laughs and ran more than 20 years. An engaging revival by the Metropolitan Playhouse falls somewhere in between and makes a good case for the piece’s being more than a quaint theatrical curio.

What might make the play interesting for a 21st-century audience is its recognition factor. Every family seems to have at least one drunk — an uncle or aunt, father or mother, brother or sister whose alcoholism is the source of both amusement and anguish to friends and relatives.

“The Drunkard” is, of course, pure melodrama, but the director, Francis X. Kuhn, avoids any of the mustache-twirling histrionics that usually accompany it, although the temptations must be great for actors and director alike. Smith, the Welsh-born son of a British Army officer, knew American audiences of his time, and the text often invites hisses, especially for the nefarious Squire Cribbs.

It is Cribbs who leads the good-hearted Edward Middleton to ruination through drink as an act of revenge for Middleton’s marrying young Mary Wilson and saving her and her widowed mother from losing their home. Because it is a melodrama, all ends happily, of course, with Middleton’s rescue from Skid Row by a wealthy philanthropist who is a sort of 19th-century Bill W. and Dr. Bob all rolled into one.

The production opens with the cast singing a couple of temperance hymns, and the narrative is punctuated throughout with songs, dances and even a couple of barroom brawls, which keep things lively.

Some commendable performances among the 13 actors help maintain the play’s credibility. Howard Thoresen ably handles the Squire’s villainy with a sly smile rather than a sneer. Michael Hardart is convincing as Middleton, both drunk and sober, and Leigh Shannan is touching as his long-suffering wife. Ben Gougeon is especially good as William Dowton, Middleton’s foster brother and guardian angel. Charlotte Hampden is aptly ditsy as Miss Spindle, a spinster who provides comic relief as a 19th-century Mrs. Malaprop, and Cyrus Newitt ably plays a variety of roles, from barkeep to Middleton’s savior.

“The Drunkard” continues through Oct. 17 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 995-5302,


Reviewed by Erik Haagensen

September 24, 2010

W.H. Smith's 1844 play "The Drunkard" is a seminal work in American social and theatrical history. It was the nation's most popular drama until the advent of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and it is generally credited as having given a significant boost to the growing temperance movement, which culminated in the 1920 enactment of Prohibition. Metropolitan Playhouse, as part of its season devoted to stereotypes, is providing a rare opportunity to see this landmark work. Unfortunately, Francis X. Kuhn's naturalistic, unfocused direction fails to set the script's melodramatic heart to beating.

And what a melodrama it is. Young, goodhearted Edward Middleton is lured down the pathways of alcoholic vice by the evil Squire Cribbs, a veritable Snidely Whiplash, who hated the boy's father and so is seeking revenge. Edward marries the pure Mary Wilson, who lives with her aged mother in a rented cottage on Edward's newly inherited property, after he prevents Cribbs from engineering the women's eviction. Feigning friendship, Cribbs introduces Edward to the joys of brandy. It only takes a couple of drinks for the lad to become a raging alcoholic and make his wife's and daughter's lives a misery. The shamed Edward flees his bucolic village for New York City, where Cribbs continues to steer him on a downward spiral until Arden Rencelaw, a reformed alcoholic turned do-gooder, steps in. Rencelaw saves Edward with a snap of his fingers; then, together, they go about Cribbs' undoing.

All the techniques of melodrama—asides, ridiculous coincidences, florid language, black-and-white morality, direct audience address—abound, but the company underplays rather than embraces them. Actor after actor gets lost in the purple period verbiage, causing important plot points to slide by unnoticed. Best of the lot is Ben Gougeon, who as William Dowton, Edward's younger foster brother, at least finds a consistent stylization for this country rube with a sweet soul. Also notable is Kendall Rileigh as Agnes, William's mad sister. Rileigh seizes her two scenes—one mad and one sane—and doesn't let go.

As Edward, Michael Hardart, though admirably focused, needs an infusion of Delsarte-style acting. Howard Thoresen, who in his younger days played Edward, is miscast as the nasty squire, offering a far too mild and at times even jovial presence in a part that calls for some serious cape twirling.

Though a published preface to the script claims that playwright Smith's performance as Edward featured "the most natural, effective acting ever seen" in Boston, where the play premiered, what was considered naturalistic then is a very different kettle of fish. If "The Drunkard" is to work at all today, it needs to be much bigger and bolder while still remaining truthful.


Martin Denton · September 20, 2010

Thanks to Eugene O'Neill and a bunch of other people, American drama learned about psychology and, later, postmodern ideology, and as a result the simplicity of the morality play was generally abandoned. I don't know about you, but I kind of miss it: I like a play, sometimes, that is absolutely clear about what's right and what's wrong, with nary a shred of ambiguity or complexity or irony in evidence.

Such a play is W.H. Smith's The Drunkard, which is now being presented—delightfully; without ambiguity, complexity, or irony—at one of my favorite theatres, the invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse in Alphabet City. Written in the 1840s by a Welshman who emigrated to America earlier in the 19th century, this is as archetypal an American melodrama as there is. As soon as you meet each of its characters, you know immediately which category—Good, Evil, or Foolish—he or she fits into. Don't worry, they won't stray out of it, even if, as this title character certainly does, they flirt with terrible Temptation along the way.

The Drunkard's temptation, as you can easily guess, is Drink. The temperance movement was still pretty young in the 1840s, and in Smith's play they received the best kind of propaganda: this is a drama about how alcohol—in the form of brandy or whiskey, in this story—can lead to calamitous ruin. Our hero Edward Middleton starts off as the most upright young man imaginable: he's well-off, well-educated (but, in the grand American tradition, probably not too well-educated), well-mannered, and possessed of a strong sense of morality. But he's a little bit partial to the booze, and when his arch-nemesis Squire Cribbs finds this out, he is led on a seemingly inexorable path to ruin. By Intermission, Edward has left sobriety behind and gotten involved in more than one barroom brawl. By the story's climax, he is on Skid Row, he has deserted his family, and has no source of income and no home. The Devil Drink—abetted by the Evil Squire Cribbs—has apparently claimed another victim.

It won't ruin things to tell you that a happy ending is store for all except Squire Cribbs (but the audience will be well satisfied by how he ends up, too; you can easily imagine the less restrained audiences of the 1800s wildly cheering this villain's downfall). It's easy to smile at Smith's contrived and often illogical dramaturgy, but there's something very pleasing about knowing just where the playwright stands on a subject: no Mametian hedging or Lettsian excuse-making, just a clear and resounding condemnation that sends us out of the theatre well convinced of what we need to do to lead upstanding lives.

Under the deft direction of Francis X. Kuhn, The Drunkard comes to life vividly and entertainingly in this production. Kuhn doesn't shy from the piece's presentational style, and in fact elaborates on it with the addition of several temperance songs interspersed throughout the proceedings. Matthew Allar (set), Sidney Fortner (costumes), and Christopher Weston (lighting) provide a modest but entirely appropriate and evocative look for the show, while fight director Scott Barrow stages the fights with the slightest of winks as Batman-esque pow!-bam!-zonk! battles that feel completely in tune with White's modus operandi.

The cast is exemplary. Michael Hardart is wonderfully sympathetic as poor Edward Middleton, showing us both the upstanding, promising "before" version as well as the down-on-his-luck and at-the-end-of-his-rope "after." Ben Gougeon charms as Edward's half-brother Bill, who is the ingenious Yankee stock character in this stew, while Charlotte Hampden is dizzily over-the-top as Miss Spindle, a daffy spinster who sets her cap on Edward until his downfall. Stealing the show out from under them, appropriately enough, is Howard Thoresen as dastardly Cribbs, a fellow so e-vill that you half expect him at any moment to start twirling his moustache and tying random young women to railroad tracks. Thoresen revels in the unmotivated nastiness of his character, and in the constant misguided trust all of the others seem to place in him, past actions glaringly be dashed.

Smith's writing is old-fashioned, no doubt about it; I found it instructive, though, to suss out its antecedents—Edward gets a couple of would-be Shakespearean soliloquies, while Miss Spindle feels like a less articulate cousin to any number of characters in Sheridan comedies. Mainly, I enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity Metropolitan Playhouse gives us here to witness The Drunkard more or less as Smith wrote it and as our American antecedents saw it more than a century ago, when our country's provincialism was more a matter of fact than of pride. Journeys backward into our history are always instructive, though not always this much fun; I heartily recommend The Drunkard for its insight into the evolution of our national character and its odds-defying playworthiness in 2010.