Off Broadway Theater Review: CORNELIUS (Finborough Theatre at 59E59 Theaters)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on June 11, 2013

in Theater-New York

SOME PLAYS ARE “FORGOTTEN” FOR A REASON

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of CORNELIUS, Brits Off BroadwayPart of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, Finborough Theatre’s classic staging of J.B. Priestley’s Cornelius, under Sam Yates’ expert direction, has rich performances and a textured period set by David Woodhead that makes one nostalgic for mechanical typewriters and landlines. Unfortunately, these elements are unable to make up for the fact that the two-hour-plus play doesn’t appear to have enough drama to sustain that runtime, the production calling to mind an episode of Masterpiece Theater – well-crafted but boring.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of CORNELIUS, Brits Off BroadwaySet in 1935 London, the play is named after its protagonist, Cornelius (Alan Cox), who, in his late 40’s, is the junior of two partners in the failing aluminum firm of Briggs and Murrison, which finds itself unable to compete in the modern marketplace. The action takes place in the firm’s general office, which harbors an assortment of characters lovingly rendered by Priestley: Biddle (a startlingly authentic Col Farrell), a Briggs and Murrison lifer who’s been comparing crematorium prices for when it’s his time; Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin), a frightened, middle-aged old maid secretly in love with Cornelius; Lawrence (David Ellis), a 19-year-old restless office boy with ambitions; and Judy Evison (Emily Barber), a beautiful young secretary who is just filling in – she’s too smart and wise to remain. Additional roles are played by Eric Shefford, Robin Browne, Andrew Fallaize, Beverly Klein, Xanthe Patterson, and Simon Rhodes.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of CORNELIUS, Brits Off BroadwayWe watch as these people interact, have their little conflicts and desires, and we care about all of them. But there’s seldom a sense that anyone is in real jeopardy; there doesn’t seem to be enough desperation. We see it in Robert Murrison (Jamie Newall), the firm’s senior partner, when he finally arrives. But he is a tertiary character, thematically a sort of mirror for Cornelius, and his state interests us only to a limited extent. It is Cornelius’s plight that we should be on the edge of our seats about. But his anxiety about his predicament – the prospect of losing his business and his life as he knows it – doesn’t feel immediate enough to sufficiently command our attention.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of CORNELIUS, Brits Off BroadwayIs it possible for a dramatic work to be good and sleep-inducing? Couldn’t a play simply show a group of characters – how they are, how they interact, what they think about – with the action only slightly nudged along by drama? Priestley’s work has many sharp observations. He brings up relevant themes and creates sympathetic personages. And although (today) most of his jokes don’t really work, his dialogue is natural and precise. And for many audience members this might be enough. But it seems that a play can and should have all those things and be riveting, with drama that grips you with its sinewy fingers and drags you down deep into its nether reaches. Instead, Cornelius feels like it is occasionally, courteously, and lightly patting you on the back to indicate that it might be time to wake up and move on.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of CORNELIUS, Brits Off Broadway

photos by Carol Rosegg

Cornelius
Finborough Theatre at 59E59 Theaters
produced by Jagged Fence, Handsome Dog and 31 Productions
part of Brits Off Broadway
scheduled to end on June 30, 2013
for tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org

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