Jericho is playwright Michael Weller’s sensitive reworking of Ference Molnár’s classic Liliom, the 1909 play best known today as the basis of the 1945 musical Carousel. Liliom plays today as old-fashioned, but its sharp and tender exploration of love and romance is evergreen. As such it still works, at least in large part, as I noted in my review of the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective’s 2014 revival.
So I wondered what Weller’s new version would have to say. It’s not a new translation, but a new script telling more or less the same story. And rather than transposing the Hungarian original to modern times, Weller has set Jericho in Coney Island during the Great Depression.
So what do we gain from this reworking?
Mainly, we gain a good play. The script gives us well-developed, empathetic characters and (most of the way) a gutsy story. And the world premiere production by the Attic Theater Company, now at The Wild Project through Feb. 10, charms via Laura Braza’s direction of a fine cast.
The Liliom character here becomes Jericho (Vasile Flutur), a charismatic Romanian-American strongman making a meager living as a human magnet attracting people to a boardwalk carousel owned by Mrs. Mosca (beautifully played by Stephanie Pope). When Jericho pays too close attention to a young admirer named Julie (a steely portrayal by Hannah Sloat), Mrs. Mosca fires him in a fit of jealousy. Jericho then takes up with Julie in what becomes a fraught not-quite-marriage that seems doomed to a tragic end.
The moral center of Weller’s version of the story is Julie, whose stubborn but half-formed feminism wrestles with her equally persistent love for the abusive Jericho. Putting Julie’s brave modern take on life in high relief, her friend Mary (a wonderful, warmly funny performance by Ginna M. Doyle) goes down a comically traditional path of wifely subservience, her social shallowness redeemed by an irresistible sweetness.
Flutur’s convincingly charismatic Jericho compels attention to the very end. His multilayered relationship with Mrs. Mosca; his ambivalence at the prospect of committing a violent robbery; his dreaming of escaping his hard-knock life to a fantastical, flowery China; his posthumous visit to Julie and the daughter he never knew – all these episodes and more comprise a memorable character and propel a timeless tale.
Like Liliom, Jericho‘s weakness lies in its second act, when the story’s fabulistic element pushes to the fore and things get uncomfortably silly. Fortunately, Weller has composed a beautiful closing scene that restores the first act’s gritty, colorful spell.
With minimal sets, Braza and the creative team build a believable world where privation and desperation live side by side with hope, optimism, and, on Coney Island at least, a perpetual carnival. All of which, in fact, you can still find there. Get a deep, old-style taste; tickets are available online or by calling 212-352-3101.