Reviewed by Lyssa Mandel
It is an ambitious enough endeavor to adapt a novel as enormous in scope and depth as the classic 1984 for the stage. Even more ambitious, though, is to do so in under an hour and a half, in the round, on a stage the size of a postage stamp. Within these parameters, Godlight Theatre Company’s Joe Tantalo has managed to create a show that is technically tight, atmospherically compelling, and requisitely creepy. Only the extreme brevity of Alan Lyddiard’s adapted script leaves Orwell’s masterpiece short-changed.
Visually and aurally, George Orwell’s 1984 is appropriately minimalist and slick. In Tantalo’s version of this “futuristic” totalitarian state, Big Brother manifests in effectively ominous and thrilling ways, with four shrill, severe women appearing as telescreens at the corners of the playing space. Their ever-present watchfulness and occasional, emotionless barked orders are heightened by goosebump-raising sound effects (sharp, chilling work by Andrew Recinos) and nightmarish light from above, changing from green to red to blue to white as the scenes evolve (an innovative and skin-crawling presentation by Maruti Evans and Dominic Barone).
Gregory Konow plays Winston Smith as a self-aware, very human man, adrift in a sea of those brainwashed by the omnipotent Big Brother. Winston moves through this world like a ghost in its former home, clinging to nostalgia in the hopes that one foot in his human memory will keep him a safe island despite the cold, power-hungry tidal wave that threatens to engulf him (and whatever remains of humanity). Konow does well with these emotions, duly terrified and motivated by his terror. His mouth often hangs open in disbelief, all the more appropriate given the head-spinning pace of the scenes, spliced together with a crude knitting needle.
Despite all this adrenaline, it takes more than climaxes to flesh out a sympathetic drama. Ironically, the human condition is exactly what this production lacks. There aren’t enough moments of quiet, simmering fear and vulnerable doubt; their parallels in the original text have been dropped in favor of constant action. The encounters between Winston and the lustful woman he falls for, Julia, should be the beating heart of the play; instead, they feel shallow and incredible, for neither they nor we have had time to develop trust and pity.
Toward the end of the work, the tempo slows long enough for the audience to hear and savor a few complete conversations, including a rattling scene in which Winston and his pitiful coworker Parsons (a terrifically obsequious Nick Paglino), having been captured for traitorous thoughts, sit opposite each other in a cold white cell awaiting their fates. In a following scene, the bone-chilling Dustin Olson, who plays the calm, merciless O’Brien, delivers blow after psychological blow to the steadfast but shattering Winston, and for a few moments, something of real substance emerges on stage.
Because of what has (or, in this case, has not) preceded it, this denouement isn’t earned; hence it’s a pulled punch-in-the-gut ending. We have to really love Winston before we can mourn his soul, and we don’t have the tools or time to do so here.
George Orwell's 1984 (80 minutes; no intermission)
59E59 Theaters, Theater C (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison)
Thru April 26 (Tues 7:30, Wed-Fri 8:30, Sat 2:30 & 8:30, Sun 3:30)