I Just Can't Like Ben Jonson

Michael Kahn's staging of The Alchemist is artistically perfect, or close to it. The sets, costumes and performances are wonderful, particularly in the second act when the various separate intrigues set up by the three con men (or "venture tripartite" as Jonson would have it) threaten to collide --and everyone's timing is "on."

If I have a criticism, it's of the playwright. Every time I have opportunity to see a Jonson play, I think to myself, "This will be wonderful. Jonson was Shakespeare's rival and some critics see him as a close second or even Shakespeare's superior." The Alchemist is said in theater history to be the most perfect, most tightly constructed, plot.

Which may be so, but it didn't stop me from recalling, about 2o minutes into the production, that I just don't enjoy Ben Jonson plays. He may be observing the unities so important to the classical stage better than Shakespeare, but not a one of his characters has any inner life or redeeming quality, and 20 minutes is about how much slapstick and "business" I can take. Jonson (why do I never recall this before I sit through one of his plays?) strikes me as a malignant soul: swift to sniff out and mock hypocrisy and folly, but incapable of recognizing goodness. He is a merciless, joyless playwright, whose "wit" is directed against imbeciles, which a) hardly seems sporting and b) you can tell he thinks everyone is in comparison with himself. Maybe you laugh if you're similarly arrogant, I don't know.

I think Kahn chose The Alchemist for this season as a reflection on last year's financial melt-down, with the "message," such as it is, being basically, "we get what we deserve." Yes, there are wicked con men at work, but you're only gulled by such men because of your own corruption --your search for a get-rich-quick scheme, or for an elixir to solve all your problems.

Which may be a salutary meditation, and as I say, I have no criticism to make of the performance per se: but I still found it tedious.