Robert Lyons’ wacky Red-Haired Thomas, currently in production at the Ohio Theatre, is a dark comedy, the script for which specifies that the production should indicate at every opportunity that it occurs in a “dream scape.” Its main character, the superstitious Cliff (Peter Sprague), plays cards for a living and is in the midst of a bad losing streak. Abby (Nicole Raphael), his whip-smart and precocious 12 year-old daughter, tries to root her dad in reality but he keeps slipping away into crises of his own invention. Red-Haired Thomas offers plenty of amusing plot threads, with varying success, and it’s tough keeping up with them all; some will undoubtedly resonate with New Yorkers. In one, Abby is believed by her school to live less than 1.5 miles away, so she only receives a half-fare Metrocard. Cliff tries to instill “principles” in his daughter about fighting for a full-fare card, not just for herself but for all the other unfortunate boys and girls who live 1.49 miles away from their schools. In the midst of their conversation Abby realizes that she and her family live in an illegal sublet. Cliff dismisses her naïveté and his own hypocrisy with one of the script's sharp comic lines: “When you’re a little older I’ll explain New York real estate. Okay?” Later, Cliff, trying to collect quarters for Abby’s bus ride, gets into several heated arguments with Ishtikar (Danny Beiruti), the hardworking owner of the local newspaper shop, who refuses to make change at Cliff’s request.
Cliff also squabbles with Ishtikar over a decorated twenty-dollar bill that Cliff found on the street in a moment symbolically important to him. Inadvertently, he hands the bill over to Ishtikar, who refuses to return it when he discovers its gravity. Ishtikar, an immigrant, wants what the American Cliff has, whatever that entails, and this mildly curious bank note soon takes on tremendous imaginary significance.
And then there’s Thomas Jefferson, or his ghost, who, battling chronic headaches, observes everything and emerges throughout the play to instill principles of his own into the characters and the audience. Here, we find that the play may also be a multi-layered allegory, suddenly laden with symbolism, taking on the relationship of the United States with the Muslim world, America’s economic decline and its exploitation of other cultures. Cliff’s wife, Marissa (Danielle Skraastad) is an executive who tries to persuade corporations to invest in the region that includes Iftikharstan, reducing her pitch to a corporate jingle and a cheesy PowerPoint presentation. No wonder Jefferson has migraines.
Cliff, according to Marissa, has become a bore. Passionless, he’s lost his game, his swagger, his zest for life. He needs to become that American cowboy again, a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, shoot-from-the-hip winner. Deep down, though, Cliff also knows he needs to regain his principles. Cliff, in a way, is America, gambling with his future, suddenly under-confident, grasping, having uncharacteristically fallen on hard times. He’s physically exhausted, spiritually diminished, angry and seeking his moral center.
It turns out that both Cliff and Ishtikar are, at least symbolically, sons of Jefferson, and, yes, brothers. Ishtikar is dismayed that the world, and particularly America, know or care nothing of his country, Iftikharstan, currently being overrun by radical Muslim invaders, similar to the Taliban. Ishtikar is trying to live the American dream, saving money so that his wife and daughter immigrate to the United States. Cliff and Ishtikar represent former and present freedom fighters, persecuted resisters of tyranny. Jefferson alludes to the fact that some American Revolutionary War soldiers committed atrocities in the pursuit of freedom. Later Ishtikar mentions that he has committed similar deeds, of necessity.
I’m not entirely sure that all of the actors are on board with the absurdity and multi-faceted nature of the premise; they should adopt more of the script’s silliness into their roles. Though technically proficient, Mr. Sprague never truly inhabits the swaggering but insecure Cliff (is that name symbolic?), teetering on the brink of financial and emotional destruction.
Yet, Alan Benditt as Thomas Jefferson is terrific, with a natural understanding of his role. Jefferson doesn’t come out smelling like a rose, however; he shows flashes of racism (calling the Irish immigrants of his own time “micks”) and seethes contempt for Hamilton. It's a treat to hear Benditt humanize this mighty mythic icon, lacing his defense of the Bill of Rights and his principles with comedic jabs at his old foe, Hamilton. Oliver Butler’s direction is solid, utilizing the abundantly spacious theater in imaginative ways.
Red-Haired Thomas is a frequently pleasant but sometimes slight topical romp through the mind of Mr. Lyons. You may alternate, like I did, between thinking you understand it all and thinking it’s all a clever red herring. In the end, though, you can’t help but think that you have been uniquely entertained.