The play within the play’s the thing

Northanger Abbey: A Romantic Gothic Comedy

Written/Adapted by Lynn Marie Macy
Directed by David Scott
Theater Ten Ten (
Equity Showcase (Closed)
Review by RL Nesvet


“I’m afraid I shall make a poor figure in your journal tomorrow,” Regency bachelor Henry Tilden says to romance-thriller reader Catherine Morland in Lynn Marie Macy’s 2003 adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, now revived at Park Avenue’s Theater Ten Ten. In Austen’s novel, Catherine’s journal remains mostly private, as the story is told in the third person. At Theater Ten Ten, however, Tilden has no such escape, because Catherine narrates her own romance, in the first person. He doesn’t know it, but she’s his author. This and other bold yet informed choices by Macy and Theater Ten Ten make Northanger Abbey: A Romantic Gothic Comedy a balanced marriage of integrity and innovation.


One such choice is Joseph J. Egan’s set design. The wings and platforms of the stage look like giant eighteenth-century books, emblazoned with the titles of those that the imaginative and bored Catherine loves. The different locations of the play are faux-woodcut illustrations on the pages of a giant open book with pages that the actors turn to change the scene. “This landscape reminds me of the South of France,” Catherine declares with great excitement on an outing with her intended and his sister. Catherine knows France only from its description by Radcliffe, who has, like her reader, never left Great Britain. The bookshelf set makes Catherine’s judgment ironically accurate.


The acting of the principal roles combines Regency posturing with the attitudes of modern teenagers. Catherine, played by Tatiana Gomberg, is restless and cynical, entranced by Bath society’s popular girl Isabella Thorpe (Summer Hagen) and increasingly shocked but never intimidated by the unwelcome attention of her boorish Oxford student brother John (Timothy McDonough). Julian Stetkevich’s Henry Tilden initially pouts like Mr. Darcy, but later lets some playfulness shine through. McDonough invests John Thorpe with a Uriah Heep accent and a body language that’s comic all by itself. The top half of his body seems to move like a submarine periscope, swinging round to leer at Catherine or sneer at his rival, and then springing back into place. Hagen uses a babyish voice and demure, limited motion to make Isabella both a model of Regency bachelorettehood and a completely annoying twit.


Finally, there’s the Gothic underside of this “Romantic Gothic Comedy”, as lightly sketched by Austen and magnified to great advantage by Macy, director David Scott, and the design team; namely, the exciting, nefarious world of Catherine and Regency England’s favorite novelist. Not Austen, but Ann Radcliffe. The people in Catherine’s world double as their melodramatic counterparts in Radcliffe’s bestseller The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine plays heroine Emily St. Aubert, an orphan of the Reign of Terror who faces off with the villainous Count Montoni for her late family’s property, her right to marry (and not marry) according to her choice, and her life. Macy’s insertion of a few key scenes into the script provides an exciting parallel plot and lets the Radcliffe novice in on Austen’s vengeful parody.


At the same time, Radcliffe didn’t write rubbish. A Bath lawyer’s wife, she gently lectures her female readers on how to demand and rationally argue for their rights. “But what right do you exert this exalted authority over me?’ “Emily” asks—in a tale published just two years after Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Perhaps the most Radcliffean Udolpho scene, however, was one without words: a nightmarish montage of all the novel’s characters, with crashing incidental music from Lohengrin. As Catherine reads and grows, we see her challenged and strengthened by Radcliffe as much as she is by reality.


The staging is mostly dynamic, and makes good use of the small stage, particularly in the ballroom dances choreographed by Judith Jarosz and Ricky D. Ravitts. In a few scenes, actors are frustratingly lined up in a horizontal row downstage. This causes them to have to peer awkwardly past each other and sometimes gives the impression of a school play. In the first-night performance, costume changes occasionally left a white underskirt showing through the back of a colored dress between the closing points, and McDonough’s blond wig was distractingly fake and revealed darker sideburns. In spite of these few glitches, the show is enchanting. Austen and Radcliffe fans and newcomers alike should find 1010’s Northanger Abbey a truly captivating place to visit.

Box Score:

Writing: 3
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 0
Lighting/Sound: 1

Copyright 2006 RL Nesvet

Return to Volume Thirteen, Number One Index

Return to Volume Thirteen Index

Return to Home Page