'Childe Byron': Wordy, But Magic

Posted: February 26, 1986

"Childe Byron," a play by Romulus Linney. Directed by Blanka Zizka, set by Philip Graneto, lighting by James Leitner, costumes by Pamela Keech, sound by Adam Wernick. Presented by the Wilma Theater at 2030 Sansom St. through April 13.

Gerally speaking, I would rather see two of Romulus Linney's shorter works than one of his long ones, for approximately the same reason that in the misty recesses of my nonage I used to nurse my pennies to buy a 57-cent bleachers ticket to a Phillies' or Athletics' doubleheader. I used to think it was

because - even in my prepubescence - I was a confirmed bargain-hunter. In the 7th decade of my life I know better: I subconsciously chose to divide my bleachers money into two parts in order to cut the inevitable agony of defeat into smaller and slightly less acidulous portions.

The analogy is of course far overdrawn. Linney is too fine a writer and too sentient a dramatist to put in the same ballpark with these dodos, let alone the same planet. Linney's shorter works ("F.M.," "Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain,"et al) are models of letting the material fill the allotted space evenly to just shy of slopping over. The longer Linneys that I have seen recently, "Love Suicide" and, last night, "Childe Byron," do rather tend to operate according to Shepard's Law: "Never stop writing until you have seen the red of their eyes."

"Childe Byron," which premiered at New York's Circle Rep in 1981, happens to be a beautifully ordered play; the fact that Linney, to my way of thinking, left the word machine clatter on won't be an impediment to many, if I am to judge by the unswerving attention riveted upon the product by an obviously blue-ribbon band of first-nighters.

Perhaps my problem is in the character of Lord Byron, the infamous pederast, whoremaster, soldier of fortune, versifier supreme and all-purpose amoralist, who pretty well hogs the stage in whatever work he pops up by whichever author. Byron is played with exquisite restraint by the New York actor David McCann.

This, nonetheless, is Byron with an asterisk, for the leading protagonist here is Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the grown-up daughter of Byron's only legitimatized alliance, who was whisked away from Byron in very early childhood by her spiteful mother.

Now, dying of cancer at the same age at which Byron met his death, Ada reconstructs the father she never knew from his poetry, sword, dueling pistols and skull-shaped drinking cup, with a hefty assist from the hallucinatory pain-killing drug she quaffs by the goblet.

Linney's brilliant resuscitation of Ada, by the way, seems to have put her smack on the Top-40 list for graduate papers in English. But no amount of scholarly spadework is likely to produce a more fiery or convincing Ada than the one Linney and the wonderful actress Ricki G. Ravitts have fleshed up for us.

Linney in the end lets Ada find the real father behind all of the flotsam and jetsam of life on the fast drain. With reservations as noted above, a mystical, magical evening of theater.

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