When it comes down to it, Nick Jones’s “The Coward” is an 18th-century sitcom by a 21st-century playwright. Lucidus, our unfortunate gentleman antihero, has been pressured by his father into dueling to prove his manliness, so he goes out and picks a fight with an old, blind man on a park bench. Since the man’s son doesn’t take too kindly to this, he challenges Lucidus to a duel – and in a desperate fit of cowardice, Lucidus hires a surrogate to fight the battle for him. In the ensuing episodes, we get an expectable case of identity theft, a very odd romance, and a delightful amount of gore that required a crew of Blood Designers and Blood Assistants to manage.
You might imagine that this plot has been done before. In fact, soon after seeing the play, I asked all my friends with literature PhD’s if they could think of a similar comedy about dueling by someone who actually lived in the 18th century, like Marivaux.
The hive mind couldn’t come up with anything, but that still doesn’t mean that “The Coward” feels particularly original. Jones has come up with a fun idea with plenty of good jokes, but the trouble with a contemporary playwright revisiting the 18th century is that there were already a ton of great plays written in the 18th century. You’ve got to do something really innovative in order to justify treading back over centuries’-old stylistic ground, and writing a parody about dueling doesn’t quite cut it.
Innovating another way
Walking Shadow director Amy Rummenie must have considered all this when staging the play, since she smartly decided to cross-cast the show. Casting women in all the male roles does some good things for her. First and foremost, it gives some great comic actresses the chance to shine. As Lucidus, Briana Patnode appeared in every scene, and she had the energy to sustain a show with a quick pace and a lot of physical comedy. There were some particularly memorable characters among the supporting cast –Jean Wolff, Suzie Juul, Shelby Rose Richardson, Linda Sue Anderson – but really, it’s just a treat to see an ensemble of such talented women in comedic roles.
In theory, cross-casting should add punch to Jones’s parody of the masculine posturing of the 18th century. And there are moments when it really works – for instance, a discussion of the gentlemen’s clothing choices highlights how silly it is to stereotype gender based on sartorial decisions. But in a play about cowardice, I’ll admit that I was expecting jabs at some more pointed issues. And my expectations were heightened – perhaps unfairly – by a combination of two factors: the cross-casting, and the fact that Nick Jones now writes for “Orange is the New Black”. I walked in assuming that the show would poke fun at the idea that men are brave and women are cowardly, and hoping that it might even take aim at the idea of the gender binary itself.
Mocking male pride
The script and production do neither; rather, the play rests on comfortable ground, mocking the arbitrary rules of dueling and family honor without pushing much further. There’s no denying that masculine pride is an easy subject for satire, but ultimately, the 18th-century model presented in the play is so far removed from real-life stresses of modern masculinity that the jokes lack a critical edge.
Chase Burns, the one man in the cast, clearly relishes his role as Lucidus’s ridiculously narcissistic love interest, Isabelle Dupree. Each time he appears on stage, he transforms the play from a pleasant comedy into a gleeful farce. This made a whole lot more sense to me than all of my attempts, however misguided, at shoehorning the play into the kind of broader cultural perspective on masculinity that I’d expected it to provide.
As much fun as the farcical moments are, it is the play’s fundamental sense of safety that makes the play feel more like a sitcom than a fully-developed piece of theater. The many conflicts that arise are very high-stakes for the characters, but never too stressful for the audience, and each scene ends with a punchline, often involving Patnode looking comically upset. It all makes for an entertaining, harmless couple of hours – just like a couple of episodes of your favorite TV show. A more targeted 90-minute farce could have hit the same notes, but with higher (and I think more satisfying) stakes.
As a production, the Walking Shadow has done an excellent job fleshing out a fairly unsubstantial script. The performances are top-notch and the laughs keep coming. Eli Schlatter’s set, with a giant gold-frame and a pink butterfly unfolding in the background, looks appropriately upper-crust. Unless I am reading way too far into this, there is also a clever smattering of Georgia O’Keefe-inspired designs on the butterfly’s body, and the pink and red color palette is also a lovely complement to all the blood.
Which there is a lot of, coming from many different parts of many different bodies. I was jealous of all of the fun these actors must have had rehearsing this show’s final scene. Serious satire this play is not, but the joyful mess at the end is worth the price of the ticket.