Charles’s brother Francis has returned after a 19-year absence. Both brothers inherited 10,000 pounds from an uncle. Charles put his into the newspaper business while Francis has used his to live the life of a wanderer, never settling in one place for very long. Francis is played by Marc Vietor. Vietor’s portrayal of Francis is at first affected and stilted but becomes less so as the play progresses (though never enough that the role becomes interesting.) The two brothers represent diametrical ends of the personality spectrum with Francis being cultured and Charles being a bit of a cultural oaf.
Francis arrives just in time to take on the role of theatre critic for one of his brother’s newspapers. Charles has had a disagreement with the current theatre critic, Simon MacQuoid, played a la the host of "Fractured Fairly Tales" from “Bullwinkle” by Jeremy Lawrence.
In an effort to gain culture Charles decides to save a foundering theatre company. He subsequently falls in love with one of the theatre’s leading ladies but not before alienating the current manager, Holt St. John, also played by Mr. Lawrence but in a more impressive performance than his first act turn.
Charles is played with confidence and a broad emotional range by Rob Breckenridge. Mr. Breckenridge easily dons the charm and smarmyness of the newspaper titan as well as the vulnerable man who succumbs to the coos of his lovely wife Emily. Emily is played by Ellen Adair who makes it easy to see what Charles has fallen in love with. She too has the chops to handle her role’s emotional highs and lows.
I should also point out Douglas Rees in the role of Jonathan. He does a fine job as the level-headed brother to Charles and Francis. His performance was natural and believable.
At the end of the first act I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to be kind about this production. The remaining three acts redeemed the play. Each of these seemed more tightly scripted and layered with emotion and issues ranging from women’s suffrage to Emily’s facing head-on Charles’s lack of a moral compass.
What the Public Wants is finely directed by Matthew Arbour. He is to be commended for his use of the limited space and his economical and fluid movement of the actors. Particularly impressive was the intense third act where the actors were mere feet from the audience. It is a family dinner where arguments ensue over Charles’s publishing a salacious story about the old murder of a family friend. The actors practically vibrated with emotion but it was contained and focused.
Arbour’s direction is aided by set designer Roger Hanna. Mr. Hanna has designed a set that closes and then opens like an origami pterodactyl. Mr. Arbour has choreographed a sharply executed musical scene change between the third and fourth act with all of the actors doing the shift. The timing was impeccable; for a moment I thought the audience was going to applaud.
The costumes by Erin Murphy were attractive and period perfect. They were well crafted and conveyed a regal air, representative of this family’s position in life. Kudos to whomever found or built the old fashioned Dictaphone, a nice touch.
A couple of minor things, throughout the play we are reminded that we are in England yet there was nary an English accent to be found among the cast and I found the music used at the top and bottom of scenes to be irritating and of a poor production quality.
The juxtaposition of the success of newspapers in 1909 and the stark landscape for publishing in 2011 is striking, what with newspapers folding and others trying to figure out how to monetize the leap to digital publishing. Yet, we still have the comfort of knowing that the more things change the more they stay the same. Schadenfreude and man’s murderous ways toward man are still alive and well, how comforting. This is an interesting play and a worthy production.