If the title of this new play brings to mind Les Misérables, especially if you’ve seen the recently released movie version of that musical, it’s not a coincidence. Deloss Brown’s ambitious play is based on Stendahl’s 1830 novel of the same name, which takes place in the latter years of the Bourbon Restoration, the same period as Les Misérables.
With Napoleon gone and monarchy and aristocracy restored, the political situation in France remained extraordinarily tense and volatile. To explore the zeitgeist of the age, Stendahl created Julien Sorel, an ambitious and fiery-minded young liberal from peasant stock who, while studying for the priesthood, becomes live-in tutor to the children of the mayor of the fictional village of Verrières. The story concerns the fixed nature of social status and what happens when young Julien – naïve, good-hearted, hiding his rebellious politics – and Mme. de Rênal, 10 years older and the mayor’s wife, become romantically involved against the background of wider local and national political events, everything from financial corruption at an orphanage to a visit from the king.
Krista Adams Santilli, Lucas Wells & Jessica Myhr – Photo by Hunter Canning
It’s a very entertaining story. Brown has adapted it for the stage in a style more presentational than emotional, with Julien starting out by speaking to us directly to introduce the characters, and many of them addressing the audience frequently along the way to explain and further the action. It’s something like a movie criss-crossed with voiceovers. But after a stiff start the cast settles into its rhythm and the story grabs our attention. While the expository form prevents us from losing ourselves in another time and place, the engaging cast and a quick pace (the playwright also directs) keep things humming along for the long first act and into the second.
As that second act progresses it begins to feel as if Brown has bitten off more than he can chew: trying to convey all at once the doings of the mayor’s household, the political machinations of the village, and the sociological currents of France itself not only political and class-wise but religious. With so much matter to masticate, plot points like Mme. de Rênal’s clever scheme to turn the tables on her cuckolded husband when he discovers her deceit rush by without adequate digestion. Honestly, I’m not sure how she did it, and other elements rush by too fast too: For just one example, the old priest who has mentored Julien is being forced out in favor of a new one, but why is this new one so bad Julien refers to him as a “whore?”
Lucas Wells does a nice job pulling the story together through his enormous amount of stage time as Julien, composed on the surface but passionate inside. Brian Linden is amusing and easy to sympathize with as the long-suffering mayor, prattling on about how very annoying it is that women are such “complicated machines.” Several other cast members score in a variety of on-and-off roles; an otherwise avuncular Jeremy Johnson even has a turn in tipsy drag. A number of the performers have opera training, perhaps because co-producer Capolavori Productions has a lot of experience in that area, and that may account for the excellence of the gestural work in some scenes, as when the illicit lovers play “handsies” in the garden in the clueless company of Mme. de Rênal’s friend Marie (Jessica Myhr).
But the real star turn here comes from Krista Adams Santilli, who at first presents Mme. de Rênal as a foolish, fainting-prone woman in line with the stereotype of the time, but rapidly comes to drive not only the plot but the energy on stage. She’s one of those operatic singers I mentioned, and while she doesn’t sing a note here, she brings something of the richly blooming style of opera acting to her presence here – funny, spirited, and authentic.
Though flawed, The Red and the Black is an interesting, cogently written, well-acted period piece that’s well worth seeing. It runs through Feb. 3 at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. For tickets, click here or call 866-811-4111.