At least three acting styles crisscross the stage in Neil Bartlett's story theatre-style adaptation of Oliver Twist. Fagin (Ned Eisenberg), Bill Sykes (Gregory Derelian), and Nancy (Jennifer Ikeda) go in for heightened realism. The Artful Dodger (Carson Elrod) is a vaudevillian, exuberantly physical and given to downstage audience asides. And Mr. and Mrs. Bumble (Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald) mug and posture like Thénardiers in a road-company Les Misérables. As for Oliver himself (Michael Wartella), he's a tabula rasa, so confined to soulful stares and high-pitched "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs" that he has no identity beyond them.
The lack of a unified histrionic mode extends to the adaptation itself, which picks up and discards comedy, music, readings from Dickens' text, and effective dramatization at capricious will. Odd moments -- Sykes threatening Nancy, Oliver's plaintive request for more -- are played for laughs. Fagin's boys are a literal band of thieves, equipped with street instruments but little individuality. The 13-member troupe comments on the proceedings with a cappella recitative, which sounds strangely like ditonal Gregorian chant. And though Rae Smith's monochromatic set design at first looks simple (she also did the eye-catching costumes), it abounds with trapdoors, secret passageways, and omnipresent smoke to convey effectively a bleak, early-Industrial Age London.
Darker and more violent than Lionel Bart's familiar musical adaptation, this Oliver Twist is not without powerful passages. Most of these come from the excellent Eisenberg, who gives Fagin, while thoroughly repellent, a chilling charm that would beguile a gullible orphan (and who curdles the blood in a terrifying prison mad scene); Derelian, whose Sykes is truly frightening; and Ikeda, a coarser-than-usual Nancy, who underplays the character's warmth. Bartlett's adaptation hurries through some passages and amplifies others, including an interesting Fagin-Nancy collusion dynamic I'm not sure even Dickens imagined. The author's critique of an unjust society and empathy for the downtrodden permeates all the warring theatrical styles, but cohesion eludes this Oliver Twist.
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience in association with American Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre
at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 899 10th Ave., NYC.
April 1-15. Tue., Thu., and Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (Additional performance Wed., April 4, 2 p.m.)
(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Casting by Deborah Brown Casting.