Friday, June 12, 2009

The Rivalry


By Norman Corwin. Directed by Vincent Dowling. At The Irish Repertory Theatre. (CLOSED)

The critical responses rise and fall according to the critic's appetite and standard for what we loosely term "docu-drama," with Terry Teachout preferring Corwin's take on the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates to other, unnamed attempts at similar material. Because a modern audience already finds the characters titanic (Douglas's nickname "The Little Giant" comes up in many appraisals of Peter Cormican's performance) and because the nascent Civil War is a story whose outcome we already know, the remaining evaluative question becomes: Does this medley of well-delivered debate speeches count as compelling theatre? For most, Christian Kauffmann's humanizing take on the iconic Lincoln answers that question in the affirmative (NY Post, AP, NYTimes, WSJ). But for others (TONY, Theatre Mania), Kauffmann's work only foregrounds the limitations of a declamatory, "radio play" production.

The New York Times A
(Neil Genzlinger) “The Rivalry,” a play by Norman Corwin, uses excerpts from those debates and the barest minimum of side plot to turn history into compelling theater. The play was seen on Broadway in 1959, when the words of Lincoln and Douglas had all sorts of relevance to the emerging civil rights movement. Now, of course, they have whole new layers of resonance, and the staging of the play by the Vincent Dowling Theater Company and the Irish Repertory Theater lets you savor them through a pair of fine performances.

The Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) This is, so far as I know, the first time that “The Rivalry” has been given a professional revival in New York, and I can’t see why it took so long. To be sure, it’s more a pageant than a play—most of the running time is given over to the debates themselves, and Mr. Corwin has made only a token attempt to place them in a larger dramatic context—but the inherent drama of the encounters between Stephen A. Douglas (Peter Cormican) and Abraham Lincoln (Christian Kauffmann) is powerful enough to hold your attention without superfluous theatrical embellishment ... So why not just stay home and read the transcripts? Because, among other things, you’ll be depriving yourself of the chance to see Mr. Kauffmann impersonate Lincoln. Not only does he bear a close physical resemblance to the man he plays, but his homespun, humorous acting is utterly plausible. Unlike the secular saint portrayed by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Mr. Kauffmann’s Lincoln is recognizably human, and even when he’s flinging great shafts of rhetoric across the platform, he still seems like a small-town lawyer who has been ennobled by fate. Mr. Cormican’s Douglas is more conventional—he plays the “Little Giant” as a strutting, overly self-confident bantamweight pol—but no less effective, and Mary Linda Rapelye is straightforward and strong as his anxious wife.

Backstage A-
(Gwen Orel) he timing is right for this revival of the 99-year-old Corwin's 1959 drama, following a divisive presidential campaign in which race was not the main issue but a strong undercurrent ... Douglas' wife serves as a self-effacing narrator, and Mary Linda Rapelye brings out her subtle shrewdness, though the in-between scenes often feel like filler. Peter Cormican's dignified Douglas is never merely a bigot, and you can't help liking him despite his racist ideology. Christian Kauffmann's Lincoln is too jolly at first, but he grows in gravity and power of thought before our eyes, becoming the visionary statesman we read about in school. Dowling's sensitive and seamless direction delivers a simple and appealing drama.

The New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) The playwright provides large portions of their speeches, including Lincoln's declaration that "a nation divided against itself cannot stand." Eloquent as they are, they tend to bog down the action. The play really comes to life when it depicts the debaters' personalities, and in the tender scenes in which Lincoln and Douglas' loyal wife, Adele ("I don't trust Republicans," she declares), develop a warm friendship. The lanky Christian Kauffman, looking uncannily like Lincoln, beautifully conveys the future president's mixture of homespun humor and powerful convictions. Peter Cormican effectively suggests the famed charisma of Douglas ("the Little Giant"), and Mary Linda Rapelye is quietly moving as the devoted Adele.

The Associated Press B+
(Jennifer Farrar) Christian Kauffmann is a wonderful Lincoln, genial and lanky. Clownish at first, Kauffmann gains in gravitas as the debates progress and Lincoln hardens his stance that the American concept of freedom must also apply to the enslaved black population ... The story is narrated by Adele Douglas (an engaging Mary Linda Rapelye). It's a personal approach that draws the audience behind the scenes of the sometimes bombastic speechifying that takes place at the debate podiums. A devoted adviser to her husband, Rapelye's charming and intelligent Adele listens intently onstage to the debates.

Time Out New York D
(David Cote) This piece of midcentury Americana is worth a visit by high-school students and Lincoln obsessives, but as three-dimensional entertainment it falls flat, especially in this overly subdued production ... Vincent Dowling’s production is restrained to the point of soporific inertia, but his two leads give intelligent, spirited performances. Kauffmann and Cormican balance folksy humor with genuine patriotic fervor through passages of gorgeous prosody. There’s just not much drama, and Corwin’s writing is all voice, no images. You can only guess that The Rivalry would have made an excellent radio drama.

Theatre Mania D-
(Sandy MacDonald) As a live performance, The Rivalry leaves a lot to be desired -- such as any significant action ... Cormican plays the "Little Giant" -- Douglas' political sobriquet -- far too hammily, as if addressing a real-life crowd numbering in the thousands, not the few score huddled in the small theater space. (And the ill-advised insertion of canned applause at strategic junctures makes the audience feel superfluous in any case.) Conversely, Kauffmann is a very believable Lincoln, offering folksy stories as prelude to powerful feats of rhetoric. It's a truly lovely portrayal that could soar in a more nuanced, three-dimensional setting.

The New York Times A 13; Wall Street Journal A- 12; Backstage A- 12; New York Post B+ 11; Associated Press B+ 11; Time Out New York D 4; Theatre Mania D- 3; TOTAL: 66/7 = 9.43 (B-)

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