An Amalgam Of Inspiration, 'Dumas' Abounds With Silliness

Posted: February 12, 1987

Last night's opening at the Walnut Street Theater was formally described as a "world premiere."

This would suggest that Dumas, the historical comedy by John MacNicholas, is a new play. Maybe that's part of the joke, because it is hard to find anything new in the work.

MacNicholas is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina. What he has given the world in this premiere is a confused piece of academic hack work that borrows inspiration from several sources. Dumas is part bedroom farce, part high comedy and part sentimental melodrama of the last century.

The author shows a glimmer of a gift for pastiche in each of these cases, but when he puts it all together, he makes an awesomely silly effect.

The play centers on the conflict of Alexandre Dumas pere and Alexandre Dumas fils, the writers who, between them, held the attention of France for the better part of the 19th century. Their works were dissimilar. The father wrote adventure novels such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The son turned out sobering problem plays, the most famous of which was his adaptation of his novel, La Dame aux camelias. We know it as Camille or, more familiarly, as Verdi's opera, La Traviata.

The authors themselves were as different as their work. The father was a worldly libertine of whose amorous adventures the puritan son disapproved. It is on this twist of that Dumas depends for much of its efforts at comedy. The spectacle of a son reproving his father for sowing wild oats is sure-fire stuff, and Professor MacNicholas, no snob, gives it a treatment that impresses unsophisticated audiences with self-consciously literary talk that carries a crushing cargo of epigrammatic mots.

Sample: "I loathe duels. I wouldn't be caught dead at one." Oscar Wilde it isn't, but it does not have to be for the Walnut's peculiar standard of wit. Remember A Perfect Gentleman of three years ago? Same sort of silly tap dance.

The good lines are mostly given to Dumas pere. In the first of the two acts, the author has given him so many piercing sallies that a lesser actor than Roger Robinson would choke on the surfeit.

Robinson has a graceful authority and the good sense not to take the material to heart. He mugs a lot, and that reassures the audience that what he is saying is indeed very funny. His timing and his embarrassed dignity are a help whenever one of Dumas pere's insistently available young women is in his bed or around his neck.

Robinson is black and so is Geoffrey Owens, who plays the son. In fact, Dumas pere was black on his mother's side. In Robinson's case, the casting is a fairly persuasive example of the wisdom of stretching a point. Owens does not come off as well, there being too much of the American teenager in him.

Having exhausted the supply of drawing-room wit, the play veers into Camille. In terms of biography, this is justifiable since the younger Dumas did indeed fall in love with a courtesan, Marie Duplessis on whom he modeled Marguerite Gautier.

Marie is portrayed with affecting delicacy by Judith Hansen, but young Owens does not imply the depth of feeling that would carry an author through the writing of the romance, and the manic atmosphere of the first act is replaced by a mopey love story.

For me, the most successful thing in Dumas is also the most clownish. This would be a male trio who make periodic appearances as if in a comic opera. One is a wronged husband (Louis Lippa) who rages for a duel with Dumas pere. The two others are his seconds, who goad him on with pizzicato verve. The duel that finally gets fought is almost funny enough to save the evening.

This is a sizable production, with 14 actors playing 18 roles under the driving direction of Larry Carpenter. John Falabella's setting of trees and columns gives depth to the stage picture and proves to be highly adaptable for the changes that are made by a crew costumed as servants.


Written by John MacNicholas and directed by Larry Carpenter, setting by John Falabella, costumes by Lowell Detweiler, lighting by Marcia Madeira. Presented by the Walnut Street Theater Company at the Walnut Street Theater, 825 Walnut St. Ends Feb. 28.

Albert - Bob Hungerford

Alphonse - Thomas Carson

Gustave Bocage - Louis Lippa

Dumas, pere - Roger Robinson

Dumas, fils - Geoffrey Owens

Nicolette - Lynn Chausow

Auguste Maquet - Don Auspitz

Soulouque - Ronal Stepney

Susanne - Katharine Buffaloe

Eugene Dejazet - Alex Corcoran

Baron de Stackelberg - Louis Lippa

Marie Duplessis - Judith Hansen

Honore de Balzac - Thomas Carson

Eugene DeMirecourt - Robin Chadwick

Lady Uppingham - Cynthia Darlow

Lord Uppingham - Bob Hungerford

Duc Longueville - Mark Capri

Lola Montez - Cynthia Darlow

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