★★★☆☆ A rare opportunity to hang out with London’s witty literary crowd, circa 1770.
A fresh wind has swept in from the Midwest, by way of the 2019 Edinburgh Festival. In her latest work, playwright Marie Kohler, co-founder of Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks, keeps interesting company; so much so that it would be churlish to fault her for fudging the story’s timeline.
In the framing device she uses, we follow a fictional researcher, Joan (Phoebe González), as she travels from Chicago to Scotland in the 1950s to check out some newly unearthed manuscripts and diaries allegedly written by James Boswell in the late 18th century. Suddenly we’re thrust back in time with Boswell (Josh Krause), as he frequents the taverns and drawing rooms of London in pursuit of his intellectual crush, lexicographer and savant-about-town Samuel Johnson (Brian Mani).
Set designer Jody Sekas has prepared the way with a multipurpose setting packed with Johnsonian-era effects: maps, books, etc. The miniscule set – 59E59’s tiny Theater C seats only five dozen onlookers, max – will morph from a London salon to the Scottish highlands to a manuscript-strewn attic, with assorted detours en route. Kohler’s script flows with equal legerdemain. With characters so witty, sparkling dialogue is all but guaranteed, and Kohler marshals her direct quotes adroitly.
Four out of the six cast members switch personae in a blink (think 39 Steps). Aside from Krause (captivating in the title role: he conveys just the right degree of puppy-dog devotion) and González, unfortunately saddled with a rather drab through-line character misplaced in time (the journals were mostly unearthed in the ’20s and ‘ 30s), everyone gets to shine in their roundelay of roles.
Mani is magisterial as Johnson: he exudes the intelligence that would have earned the scholar all due reverence in his day. He also appears as Boswell’s cold, demanding father – a nice Freudian touch.
Rebecca Hurd is fetching in her many guises, including portraitist Joshua Reynolds, the saintly Mrs. Boswell (who manages to overlook her spouse’s peccadillos), and a game barmaid. To Johnson’s dismay, Boswell always kept his eye out for a bit on the side. It seems that the compulsive diarist was also quite the sex addict, and uniquely suited to the pursuit: “We came to sweet conclusion five times!” he boasts to a paramour (Hurd again), who graciously concurs: “You are a prodigy.”
Miriam A. Laube spans actor David Garrick (mocked for squeezing a hidden pig bladder to make Hamlet’s hair stand on end in the Ghost scene) and Lady Fiona, the smartly acidic, land-poor aristo who has dominion over a deteriorating manse packed with possible literary treasures. Fiona is earthy and practical, whereas Joan is a bit of a prig. We never do get to peruse the vaunted porn packed away “in the croquet box,” but there are plenty of juicy bits bandied about.
The two women, with their contrasting styles, would warrant a play all their own, and nearly get one: Their differences come to the fore as the play winds down. How interesting it might have been to move these two back a few decades, when a woman’s place, pre-World War II, was even more constricted.
Still, the production, as is, provides plenty of unanticipated pleasures, not the least of which is the opportunity to see skilled actors working their stage magic (sans pig bladders) from up close – very close. The play also serves as a welcome reminder of an era which, its many barbarisms aside, at least venerated its forward-thinking intelligentsia.
Boswell opened November 16, 2022, at 59E59 and runs through December 4. Tickets and information: 59e59.org