The Herbal Bed
April 1998, Broadway, NY
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, Broadway, NY
Review from Variety, April 20, 1998:
Author: Charles Isherwood
NEW YORK An Alexander H. Cohen, Max Cooper, Anne Strickland Squadron and Chase Mishkin presentation, by arrangement with Duncan C. Weldon, of a play in two acts by Peter Whelan. Directed by Michael Attenborough. Sets, David Jenkins; costumes, Alvin Colt; lighting, Beverley Emmons; music, Adrian Johnston; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald; production stage manager, Alan Hall; casting, Bernard Telsey Casting. Opened April 16, 1998. Reviewed April 15. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
A bodice-ripping melodrama festooned with a thin veneer of historical (and, yes, herbaceous) authenticity, Peter Whelan's "The Herbal Bed" is an odd bet for Broadway; its arrival here is probably best explained by the current general mania for all things English. In a production that matches the play for earnestness and obviousness, this "Bed" looks rather antique.
The play originated at the Royal Shakespeare Co.'s Stratford-upon-Avon site, where proximity to the locale of the doings it details may have given it an allure that's now absent. The heroine is Shakespeare's daughter Susanna (Laila Robins), and the play was inspired by an intriguing incident in her history, a charge of defamation she brought against a man named John Lane, who had publicly accused her of adultery.
Whelan elaborates upon the minimal details known about the case in a manner that would warm the heart of a romance novelist. His Susanna is, at first appearance, happily married to Dr. John Hall (Tuck Milligan), whom she steadfastly aids in dispensing herbal concoctions culled from their carefully tended back garden, where most of the play's action takes place. When she's not dispensing medicine, she's free with advice to the lovelorn, namely her husband's randy young apprentice Lane (Trent Dawson), who harries her with teasing allusions to a previous flirtation between them, and the brooding fabric-seller Rafe Smith (Armand Schultz), whose admiration for Susanna is tinged with guilt over betrayal of his ailing and possibly mad wife.
When the good doctor is called away to tend a patient, things between Susanna and Rafe heat up quickly, and by the end of the first act, they're locked in a passionate embrace that looks uncomfortably like the cover of a paperback brought to vivid life: He in big boots and bare chest, she in frilly white nightgown and flowing locks, urging him on with talk of "love's alchemy" (and there's a title for you). The effect is little mitigated by David Jenkins' scenery, which could use a little more imagination and a lot less green paint.
Imagination is also lacking in Michael Attenborough's stolid staging, and things only get worse in the second act, as various confrontations ensue when it's revealed that Lane witnessed enough of Susanna and Rafe's encounter -- aborted though it was by loyal servant Hester's sudden arrival -- to tell tales about it over one pint too many.
The scandalized Dr. John demands a public retraction, about the wording of which there is much talk. Rafe enters from stage left to tangle with the nefarious Lane, resulting in some fisticuffs and more talk, before things finish in an endlessly protracted scene with the investigating Vicar-General, in which there is much, much too much talk.
As the conflicted lover Smith, Schultz is lacking in magnetism, although he isn't given a lot to do other than brood and stomp around in his boots. Dawson's English accent is somewhat wayward, but then so is his character. In fact Milligan's Dr. Hall is the most appealing -- and capably acted -- man onstage, rendering Susanna's dissatisfaction perplexing (although Milligan, too, has his overripe moments).
Robins, a lovely actress who was terrific in the Los Angeles production of David Hare's "Skylight," can't do much with a character who cannot open her mouth without a torrent of variously impassioned, noble or wise-beyond-her-epoch speech issuing forth, too often delivered with a wistful peer into the (presumably verdant) distance. (Susanna apparently inherited her father's gift for gab without his artistic genius.)
Whelan lards his story with arcana both historical and medical, making this a safe bet to be the only Broadway play in which the 17th-century treatment for gonorrhea is likely to figure prominently, for example, but it's mostly quaint window dressing on a familiar tale of forbidden love and retribution, one that would need the genius of a Bard to make it green again.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cahners Publishing Company
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