The Drunkard

By WILBORN HAMPTON

October 4, 2010

Of all the old war horses of the American theater, few have been more durable than “The Drunkard,” W. H. Smith’s cautionary tale on the evils of John Barleycorn. The original 1844 staging in Boston was for a temperance crusade and was deadly serious; a 1933 production in Los Angeles was played strictly for laughs and ran more than 20 years. An engaging revival by the Metropolitan Playhouse falls somewhere in between and makes a good case for the piece’s being more than a quaint theatrical curio.

What might make the play interesting for a 21st-century audience is its recognition factor. Every family seems to have at least one drunk — an uncle or aunt, father or mother, brother or sister whose alcoholism is the source of both amusement and anguish to friends and relatives.

“The Drunkard” is, of course, pure melodrama, but the director, Francis X. Kuhn, avoids any of the mustache-twirling histrionics that usually accompany it, although the temptations must be great for actors and director alike. Smith, the Welsh-born son of a British Army officer, knew American audiences of his time, and the text often invites hisses, especially for the nefarious Squire Cribbs.

It is Cribbs who leads the good-hearted Edward Middleton to ruination through drink as an act of revenge for Middleton’s marrying young Mary Wilson and saving her and her widowed mother from losing their home. Because it is a melodrama, all ends happily, of course, with Middleton’s rescue from Skid Row by a wealthy philanthropist who is a sort of 19th-century Bill W. and Dr. Bob all rolled into one.

The production opens with the cast singing a couple of temperance hymns, and the narrative is punctuated throughout with songs, dances and even a couple of barroom brawls, which keep things lively.

Some commendable performances among the 13 actors help maintain the play’s credibility. Howard Thoresen ably handles the Squire’s villainy with a sly smile rather than a sneer. Michael Hardart is convincing as Middleton, both drunk and sober, and Leigh Shannan is touching as his long-suffering wife. Ben Gougeon is especially good as William Dowton, Middleton’s foster brother and guardian angel. Charlotte Hampden is aptly ditsy as Miss Spindle, a spinster who provides comic relief as a 19th-century Mrs. Malaprop, and Cyrus Newitt ably plays a variety of roles, from barkeep to Middleton’s savior.

“The Drunkard” continues through Oct. 17 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 995-5302, metropolitanplayhouse.org.

© The New York Times


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