Turning the screw

Quint and Miss Jessel at Bly

By Don Nigro
Directed by Nicole Lerario
Random Arts, Inc.
Theater 22
54 West 22 St. (726-1149)
Equity showcase (closes April 28)
Review by David Mackler

It's an iffy proposition to use characters from another work as the protagonists in a new piece. Two masters must be served -- the piece being referenced and the new work itself. Don Nigro has taken the ghostly presences from Henry James's Turn of the Screw and written an earlier chapter of their story, which endeavors to explain who they are and how they got to where James has them in his story. Random Arts' production of Quint and Miss Jessel at Bly had many strengths -- a terrific cast, smooth direction, and superb technical elements, but while it was often effective, the play itself falls short. Without knowledge of Turn of the Screw, it plays as a perfunctory, if turgid, melodrama. With knowledge, it is an exercise in recognition -- oh yes, thus and such could be the precursor to this or that event James wrote about; yes, that happenstance makes sense in terms of what James's governess reveals in her own story.

Nigro has posited a friendly but antagonistic relationship between the Master of Bly (Carl Bradford) and Quint (Jason Jennings), his valet, who is being sent to Bly as caretaker. Quint sees this as a demotion, one of the many class elements Nigro raises in the course of the play. Miss Jessel (A. Caitlin Carr) has been retained as governess to the Master's niece and nephew, their parents having died in India. The tension and attractions flow freely in all directions -- Master uses Miss Jessel, she's in love with him, and Quint resents the intrusion at the same time he has his own designs on her. Nigro has a way with language, giving Quint long and elaborate speeches that encapsulate events, carry the plot, and are weighted with thematic baggage -- and Jennings delivered them superbly. It was particularly due to him that the play was as engrossing as it was, even when it seemed to be much ado about nothing. When Quint speaks to the boy Miles, there are at least three things going on -- his resentment at being caretaker, his fury at his Master, and an unwelcome identification with (and affection for) the child. This in spite of the fact that Quint and Miss Jessel seem to have sprung from two different centuries: Quint seems 20th-century post-Freudian, voicing a near-complete understanding of motives, desires, and limitations; it is only during his final walk that Quint seems as lost as the character really would be. Miss Jessel is more appropriately 19th-century, full of neediness but blind to the deeper meaning, and Carr was completely clear even as Jessel is confused by her conflicting emotions, and she cogently delivered the repeated speeches Nigro gives her about what she sees in mirror reflections. Bradford's Master originally seemed buffoonish, but when it became clearer how uncaringly he uses people his whole demeanor became more complex and interesting.

The play began with something of an overture, with an excellent original score by DJ Butterface: various musical themes were introduced as Ian W. Hill's lighting highlighted different parts of the (uncredited) simple sets. Mike Bazini's sound design helped with the feeling of menace as the loud ticking of a clock bridged scene changes, and Staci Shember's costumes beautifully helped preserve the time and place. Nicole Lerario directed as if these characters' plights were the most important things in the world, and thankfully, that's how they played. Quint and Miss Jessel is effective within its own limitations, but then it is hamstrung by those very constraints.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 David Mackler