by Cindy Pierre
published March 22, 2009
now playing Off Broadway at the Ohio
through March 28
Thomas Jefferson achieved distinction in many
different fields beyond politics during his lifetime. He was an archaeologist, horticulturalist, architect, inventor, and even the founder of
Virginia, among other things. And two hundred years later, in Robert Lyons' Red-Haired Thomas, he's
even influencing the life and actions of a professional gambler who's piling a heap of dreams and aspirations on top of his daughter.
Jefferson sure does get around, and in this elegant but non-cohesive dark comedy, he tickles our funny bones and asks us to reconsider our own
ambitions doing it.
From the very beginning, Red-Haired Thomas is layered with a facetious veneer that is quite becoming for the story that unfolds.
Thomas Jefferson, played by Alan Benditt, sits with his feet in an ice-filled bucket, hoping to rid himself of his migraine. It's a silly
image of a man whose life was filled with anything but frivolity, but putting him in this type of light humanizes him. And surprisingly,
Jefferson's humanity is the one thing that keeps the play grounded. He serves as a fairy godfather of sorts for Peter Sprague's Cliff, a
gambler that needs help keeping himself and his family together.
Portraits of great men hang from the ceiling on the
side of the stage, but they don't contribute anything visually or historically. Besides, Cliff already has Jefferson's incarnation to connect
him to the past. Oliver Butler directs with a vision that takes advantage of the depth of the stage, but disservices the audience's attention.
Characters emerge from the background, but only become fully present in the foreground; it's ambiguous whether this is a metaphysical staging
choice or one that simply didn't consider the audience's engagement. Cliff's relationship with his daughter Abby, played by Nicole Raphael, is
quirky and cute, thanks to Lyons' well-written dialogue. Apart from Sprague's occasionally poor delivery, the exchanges between them are the
heart of the show.
The play makes a sharp turn into weirdness with
Cliff's wife Marissa, a risk management consultant played by Danielle Skraastad. There's no chemistry between Skraastad and Sprague, but
Skraastad has enough fire and presence on her own. She unleashes her inner songstress when she sings (yes, sings) about her client, Business
Heaven, with her minions Eren Pellecchia, Sasha Smith and Jessy Teboul as backup dancers.
Even odder still is Cliff's several run-ins with and
finally being taken hostage by Ifthikar, a newspaper vendor and Iftikharstan political activist played by Danny Beiruti, who is very much Cain
to Cliff's Abel. Beiruti's zeal is impressive, but trashing his extensive newspaper inventory is only one of the many things that get out of
hand with his story. However, Ifthikar's exchanges with Cliff about Cliff's lucky, red-haired Thomas bill are nicely written and evoke a lot
of pride and reasonable indignation.
Thomas tries to connect the past to the present, but there are simply too many kooky
storylines to establish a link. Perhaps the intention was to make the show as diverse as Thomas Jefferson's legacy. Unfortunately, this show's
versatility works against it. There may be some chuckles and some witty banter, but not nearly enough good sense.
cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com