Michael Weller’s lengthy program note for Jericho, a reworking of Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom, acknowledges that it failed when first produced in 1909. He notes “it’s [sic] inventive and unexpected story, blend of crime, romance, fairy-tale” and “off-center mordant humor,” along with “a love story like no other I know of.” Audiences will recognize the plot of Carousel: Rodgers and Hammerstein took the play, which became a Theatre Guild hit in 1921, and used it as the basis for a more far-reaching success.
Revisiting plays like Pygmalion, The Matchmaker, or Liliom may have their rewards, although they will always stand in the shadow of their musical versions: My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly! and Carousel. But the Attic Theater production of Jericho gives no indication of a play that can stand on its own, let alone demands rediscovery. Rather, this production provides evidence why it has remained out of the repertory.
Weller has transplanted the action from Molnár’s Budapest to Coney Island in 1932, although costume designer Bevin McNally has some weird ideas about what would be appropriate garb in 1932. Why would heroine Julie Heller’s best friend, Mary (Ginna M. Doyle), be wearing hot pants belonging in the 1960s? Would the Catholic nuns who run her lodgings turn a blind eye to her revealing clothing when they lock the doors on young women who haven’t arrived back by 10 p.m.? It’s inconceivable.
Director Laura Braza has cast a number of black actors in this period piece, when the fantasy of the piece needs some grounding in reality. Races didn’t mix so casually in 1932, especially in the working class, although advances were being made in the arts throughout the 1920s to incorporate looks at black life, in plays like All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Green Pastures, and in musicals like Show Boat. In spite of good performances by Stephanie Pope as the proud Mrs. Mosca, the self-sufficient carnival owner with an urge to bed Jericho (Vasile Flutur), and a superb Jamal James as a character named Fritz, the color-blind casting in a historical period of keen racial divisions is jarring. And Erinn Holmes, who doubles as Fritz’s mother, Mrs. Hendricks, and as a judge at the pearly gates, overacts with gusto, turning comic relief into a Saturday Night Live skit.
There are other bafflements. The central characters, of course, are Julie (in Carousel Julie Jordan, but here surnamed Heller) and Jericho (wisely renamed from the Hungarian Liliom), the carnival barker. From the first scene, though, it’s unclear why Julie would simply abandon her job to stay out late with Jericho, who barely recognizes her from her recent ride on the carousel, though she hasn’t escaped the jealous eye of Pope’s Mosca. Hannah Sloat’s Julie is spunky and clear-spoken, but ultimately the character doesn’t make sense, and her purposefulness in sticking with the brusque Jericho seems perverse, especially after he has hit her. That plot point is no longer persuasive and suggests that Molnár’s original is now a period piece with little to say to viewers conditioned to loathe sexual abuse. (Whether the imminent Broadway revival of Carousel will pose the same obstacle remains to be seen.)
Nevertheless, the 1932 morals are left in place. Jericho is warned by a policeman against trying to keep Julie out late: “The young lady may have a very big problem if she falls for your song and dance, and then wakes up tomorrow morning without her handbag, and maybe without something else a girl wants to save up for marriage…” Vasile Flutur shows some caddish charm but hasn’t enough charisma to justify Julie’s impulsive risk of everything, and apparently the actor’s commitment to the part doesn’t extend to removing a metal band in his ear that would never have been an accessory in 1932. (Braza should have insisted on it.)
Meanwhile, there’s a half-hearted narrator called Dr. Ruhl, gratingly played by a towering Jerzy Gwiazdowski dressed as a nightmarish Willy Wonka. He pops up at odd times and plops himself at the side of the stage whether he has lines or not. Ultimately, it seems, he is a heavenly observer and Jericho’s spirit guide, as it were. The actor, character and part are such an annoying intrusion that you may reconsider the attractions of heaven if you have to mingle with the likes of him.
Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets and props are effective and appropriate. Three walls are covered with period ads for such products and attractions as Coca-Cola, Wonder Wheel, Luna Park, and Kodak. The photo shop run by the Hendrickses has a period camera on a wooden tripod. Yet in this production photos are developed and framed in 10 minutes! It’s part and parcel of the clumsy writing and direction. You may want to stick with the musical version.
The Attic Theater Company production of Jericho runs through Feb. 10 at the Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday; on Feb. 10 there is a 2 p.m. matinee. For tickets and information call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit thewildproject.com.