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Paulanne Simmons

Matthew Burnett Channels Thornton Wilder in “Theophilus North”


“Theophilus North”
Directed by Carl Forsman
Presented by Keen Company
Clurman Theater
410 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th streets
Opened Sept 14, 2006
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m. & Sun. 2 p.m.
Additional Sat. matinee October 14 at 2 p.m.
$40 (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Closes October 14, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Sept. 14, 2006

Thornton Wilder was one of the few writers equally at home in drama and narrative fiction. He won his first Pulitzer for his 1927 novel “The Bride of San Luis Rey” and his second and third for the plays “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth.” His final, semi-autobiographical novel, “Theophilus North.” Is currently bridging both genres in Matthew Burnett’s similarly titled stage adaptation presented by Keen Company and directed by the estimable Carl Forsman.

Despite his name, Theophilus is not a lover of God. As the play opens he is not even a lover of man. In the spring of 1926, he is thirty and bored with his teaching post in New Jersey. He quits his job, buys a used car, and goes to Newport, Rhode Island. There he takes on a variety of jobs: tennis coach (although he can’t play tennis), French tutor and reader. In each of his positions he finds that he becomes more involved is solving his client’s personal problems than in performing the task with which he was originally entrusted.

Thus Theophilus teaches his student not only French, but also how to execute the difficult journey through adolescence to adulthood. He gives an old man a new reason for living, along with their shared literary adventures. He saves a marriage while keeping a pregnant wife busy with books so her husband can go philandering. He prevents a young couple from eloping and making a disastrous mistake that will ruin both their lives.

The problem is Theophilus has set out to have his own adventure, not be a catalyst or a bystander to the adventures of others. It is the way in which Theophilus reconciles his original goals with his obvious talents that is the central theme of this play.

Georgio Litt makes his New York debut in the title role. His blend of irony and sincerity is thoroughly believable and engaging. A capable ensemble cast plays all the other parts, as well as various inanimate objects, including an old car, a park and a town.

“Theophilus North” takes on all of Wilder’s traditional concerns: s person’s place in the universe, (“I do not want to live in a lighthouse, firmly constructed so that nothing gets in. There must be no lonelier existence in the world. And I do not need to be in Hong Kong, or in Rome, or Berlin or London or even New York to belong to the world.”), the quest for self-actualization (“What have I seen? Nothing! What the hell am I still doing here? With all my ambitions, what am I?”), and the foolishness of humanity (“Mr. North, I lose control every now and then. My whole life has been mixed up and full of mistakes. I was sent home from three schools.”)

Even better Beowulf Boritt’s minimalist setting pays homage to Wilder’s early experiments in theatrical technique and Forsman directs his actors to break the fourth wall in way highly reminiscent of “Our Town.”

One cannot help but feel that Wilder would have felt thoroughly at home in the town Keen Company created.

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