We may never know why it took Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor over three decades to receive its world premiere, but the virtuosic performance of David Greenspan, and the subversive thrill of the character he plays, makes it worth the wait.
Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald
“I am civilization!” So announces the self-congratulatory Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, in Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor, a fanciful recounting of Hyde’s royal governorship of New York from 1702–1708. In the hands of playwrights William M. Hoffman and the late Anthony Holland, Hyde, whose reputed cross-dressing and sexual philandering is still up for debate in historical circles, becomes a symbol of social progress, moral freedom, and good fashion. A combination of Wilde’s aestheticism and Whitman’s inclusivity, Hyde embodies the revolutionary promises of the gay liberation movement, from whose energies the play sprung when it was written in the mid-1970s. To complete the parallel with the post-Stonewall, sexual-revolution culture wars, Hoffman and Holland set Hyde against the Puritan Dutch, who lived in New York at the time and resisted the libertinism of their English rulers. In this example of what Hoffman calls “revanchist revisionist history, or history as…it should have been,” the Lord Cornbury becomes a queer comic-book hero.
As played by David Greenspan, Hyde flutters around the stage in a revolving fashion show of dazzling, overwrought outfits, most of them dresses. As a performer, Greenspan (Some Men, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles) emphasizes style and gesture over psychology: his characters float above the stage in an aesthetic nether region that can make everyone else onstage appear foolishly earnest. These talents serve Cornbury in abundance, as in scene after scene Hyde knocks his enemies off their high horses not by argument but by turning them into contrivances, thereby dismissing them. To the repulsed insults of the pastor’s son, Greenspan faces the audience and speaks with a feigned coquettish whine: “Comprendre, c’est pardonner. I can scarce accept your proposal for I am married.” By showing how easily the young man’s earnestness can apply to a melodramatic love scene, Greenspan punctures the balloon of fundamentalist sincerity.
This project of deconstruction by theatrical silliness was once exemplified by the late Charles Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, to whose aesthetic Cornbury owes an obvious debt. Stage designer Mark Beard is wise to construct a set of flimsy flats and curtains, so that the whole production yields to the meta-theatrical impulses of its main character (who watches the set unfurl at the show’s beginning, like a stage manager). And director Tim Cusack is wise to cast Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s partner and heir, as the Puritan pastor. But the rest of the ensemble struggles with the self-conscious style of the Ridiculous, despite glimpses of success in Ashley Bryant (as Hyde’s African slave) and Julia Campanelli (as his besotted wife). Hyde is never presented with a worthy adversary, and even Quinton, who works overtime to turn his character into a winking, “Dr. Evil”-like caricature, winds up unbalancing the production by drawing attention away from the pastor’s wife, who is meant to be Hyde’s true nemesis.
So Greenspan steals the show, just as Edward Hyde, at the play’s end, claims the spirit of New York City as his own. When the governor is offstage, we yearn for his return, not an inappropriate response given the politics of the play. But as a theatrical experience, it reveals the potential of Hoffman and Holland’s play while leaving space for a more definitive production in the future.
Cornbury: The Queen's Governor (2 hours with intermission)
Hudson Guild Theatre (441 West 26th St)
www.cornburytheplay.com or 212-352-3101 ($18)
Through Feb 8: Sat 2pm, Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm
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