Charles Dickens had an incurable appetite for melodrama, but in his novels there's enough else going on—complex plots, colorful characters, vivid description, social commentary, and epic sweep—to counteract the stagier stuff. But in this plodding modern adaptation, by director Steven L. Denlinger and Steven M. Huey, the melodrama dominates. Despite a large cast of 17, there's little spectacle. The actors wear modern dress, the French Revolution is kept mostly offstage, and there are no scenes at the guillotine, no carmagnole, no full sense of the whole society in upheaval.
In the wildly romantic tale, disreputable hard-drinking lawyer Sydney Carton (Charles Harlander) falls in love with demure Lucy Manette (Lauren Dunagan) and remains loyal to her despite her marriage to French aristocrat Charles Darnay (a rather stiff Austin Lawrence). When Darnay is arrested and condemned to death by the Revolutionary Committee, Carton takes advantage of his startling resemblance to Darnay—which we must take on faith—to assume the Frenchman's identity and gallantly die in his place. The murderously vengeful Madame Defarge (Maria Olsen) and her stalwart husband (Ron Collins) provide the requisite villainy, while the Cockney body-snatcher Jerry Cruncher (Herman Wilkins) supplies the dialect comedy.
Harlander, almost alone in the cast, plays against the melodrama and thereby achieves a degree of charm and credibility that almost saves the evening. In Carton's most famous speech, Harlander undercuts the theatrics by suggesting ironic amusement at his own heroics. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, where competence and ability rub against broad mugging and a confusing mélange of dialects.
The adaptation consists of many short scenes that gather little momentum and virtually no emotional resonance. And the flat-footed direction does little to compensate for the script's shortcomings.
Presented by Charlens Theatre Company and Hollywood Repertory Theatre at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre, 11006 Magnolia Ave., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Nov. 10-Dec. 10. (323) 428-5678.