The Lusty and Comical History of Tom Jones | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Lusty and Comical History of Tom Jones




Center Theater

A joke isn't funny just because the joke teller says it is. And The Lusty and Comical History of Tom Jones isn't lusty and comical just because its title says it should be.

Instead of a smooth, flowing story, where characters and themes develop naturally, the play is fragmented, chopped up by expository lines delivered before, and sometimes during, each of the numerous, and at times superfluous, scenes. Instead of being allowed to warm to the characters, the audience is cajoled. We are constantly reminded, "Hey, this is funny."

The play, adapted by John Morrison from Henry Fielding's 18th-century novel, follows the life of Tom Jones, who was mistakenly believed to be the son of peasants. We're told that Jones is well-loved in his community (though we're also told, by a chorus wearing unexplained masks, that Jones was born to hang). But in an era when everything depends on lineage--it wasn't who you knew, but who you were--poor Jones is out of luck. No matter how lovable, Jones will never inherit money or land, and so will never be allowed to marry his loved one, the well-born Sophia Western.

An interesting play could have been made about the change in people's reactions to Jones from when they think he is a peasant to when they know him to be one of the squire's family. But Morrison seems most taken with winking at the audience and having women chase Jones into bed.

Through a bit of evil conniving by Blifil, the squire's nephew and presumed heir to his estates, Jones is exiled and sent to wander the world. He is robbed, befriended, seduced, attacked, accused of villainous deeds, and seduced some more. Of course he prevails and, when his true heritage is revealed, is restored to the squire and granted the hand of Sophia.

Tom Jones is played from the beginning as an unmistakable slapstick farce about mistaken identity, the outcome of which is a given, but something is needed to keep the audience's interest for two and a half hours. Twenty minutes into the show, the stock jokes--a man snoring through a church service, actors indicating anger with bulging eyes--are tiresome. Equally tedious is the reliance on caricatures--from toothless peasants groping about a country inn to the stuffy and innocuous nobility drifting through London's high society.

Worse, director Dan LaMorte has set the whole show at a frantic pace. There are plenty of screaming actors running about onstage, but little distinguishes one from the other. And LaMorte has done so little to differentiate the numerous scenes that almost everything becomes overwhelmed by the high pitch.

The most notable exception is a riding scene early on, in which a crowd of actors on unseen horses trot to the sound of hooves. The image is nicely subdued, and when Sophia's horse suddenly bolts and races offstage, we believe her fright. Jones gallops off in pursuit and, to the sound of violent neighing, stumbles onstage grappling with reins suspended from the ceiling.

But overall, John Mossman's Jones doesn't convince; he is often upstaged by louder characters. It is almost as if Mossman wants to create a universal, malleable ordinary character who would somehow assume mythic proportions in the minds of others, but there's no support for such an interpretation in the production.

John Garvey, as the feisty Squire Western, was the most consistently engaging actor. He ranted too much at times, but he managed to convey the doubt and worries of a country nobleman intent on increasing his wealth through his child's marriage. Michael Halberstam was funny as Partridge, a man wrongly banished, wandering the world with beer as his guide.

In trying so hard to relate every detail of Henry Fielding's novel, Morrison has diluted the humor and humanity his play might have had.

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