It's inevitable that any play trying to put a finger on the meaning of the right to pursue freedom in America would end up as dreamily cryptic as Robert C. Lyons's Red-Haired Thomas. What's clear, however, is that we need dangerously funny perspectives like these so that we don't blow our own problems out of proportion.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Robert C. Lyons's Red-Haired Thomas is an openly cryptic new play; after all, it stars Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt) in a contemporary setting and deals with the most elusive and human of all human rights: the right to pursue happiness. (That's more or less the first line.) This makes Oliver Butler a wise choice for director: he has an ability to condense and clarify magical realism (as he has with his group The Debate Society) without stifling the material. Sure enough, save for a few wrinkles with a too-directly political subplot, the collaboration results in a thought-provoking evening, poking fun at our tendency to blow our problems out of proportion even as we minimize the unfortunate circumstances of others.
Where one may take issue is that Lyons has written myopically from the POV of Cliff (Peter Sprague), a symbolic capitalist, from the gun-slinging attire he dons to his "job" as a freewheeling poker player, undone the second he grows a conscience--in this case, by his worries for his daughter, Abby (Nicole Raphael). This makes Cliff's counterpart, the hardworking and bitter newspaper salesman Iftikhar (Danny Beiruti) into a stereotype. Lyons wisely skirts the issue by treating him as a joke (and Butler has Beiruti ham it up), but it overpowers the truth behind Iftikhar's feeble attempt at being a suicide bomber: "In the paper, they treat us all the same!"
The play is stronger when on more serious and solid footing--Iftikhar may seem like an ass, but it's hard not to empathize when he refuses to return a portentous $20 bill to Cliff: "I will draw strength from it, knowing that somewhere, someone resents me for what I have. Then I will know the sweet taste of America." It's for this reason that the segments following Cliff's wife, Marissa (Danielle Skraastad), don't really work: while the worldview of a risk-management consultant is interesting, the presentation (PowerPoint and musical interlude) is jarring. This is also why Abby's scenes are so effective--not only is Raphael a perfectly convincing 11-year-old, but she's pure, even when playing her counterpart, Iftikhar's hajib-clad daughter.
In the end, it's the freedom Red-Haired Thomas touts that saves it. Lyons's script jumps around in an entertainingly comic way (thanks to the breathless Sprague, exasperated Benditt, and endearing Raphael), and Butler's direction accommodates it, using the entire Ohio Theater to emphasize the importance of location. There's also a neat visual effect, both in Sydney Maresca's costumes--modern times cross with Jeffersonian times as characters become what they (or others) envision them to be--and in the way Tom Gleeson's tarted up the set, creating an illusion of splendor for Iftikhar and Cliff to fight over. It's a credit to the cast and crew that when the facade is pulled down, the audience remains entranced--aware, more than ever, of the need for dreams.
Red-Haired Thomas (90 min., no intermission)
Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 3/28): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 7
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.