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Bartleby the Scrivener
'The easiest way of life is the best!' Always I'd held to that conviction. 'The easiest. . .the best.' And in a snug office at number twelve Wall Sreet, I did a very tidy business among rich men's mortgages, title deeds, bonds. Never addressed a jury. Never drew down public applause. Suffered nothing to invade my peace.
--- Standard, whose peaceful life is drastically changed when he hires a ghost-like and uncommunicative young man named Bartleby, who, after attacking his job as a copyist or scrivener with the fervor of one "famished for something to copy," becomes mysteriously rebellious, his only words explanation: "I would prefer not to."

Marco Quaglia as Bartleby (front) and Gerry Bamman as Standard
Marco Quaglia as Bartleby (front) and Gerry Bamman as Standard
(Photo:Carol Rosegg)
The success of adaptations of classic fiction to the theater often is determined not only by the available talent, but also by the suitability of a particular work to transfer to a different medium. Bartleby the Scrivener, a defiantly dry mid-nineteenth century story by Herman Melville, its central character an unusually silent and enigmatic copyist in an attorney’s office, would not have seemed by many literati to be a great choice for adaptation. However, R. L. Lane’s splendidly crisp script proves to be filled with dramatic potential, and the vivid, compelling, and, especially in the early scenes, even appropriately humorous production brought to the stage by director Alessandro Fabrizi realizes this potential brilliantly.

The tale, set in a small and spartan office space in antebellum lower Manhattan, depicts the workplace of a plodding but efficient attorney who specializes in document production in the days shortly before the typewriter radically transformed such activity. Mr. Standard, as he has been named with a Dickensian signal towards his essential business priority, is the forthright and reasonable boss of three employees, each with an odd name. His senior scrivener, called Turkey, apparently is a top-quality copyist during the mornings, but by each afternoon his love affair with ale ruins his productivity. A much younger colleague called Nippers does reliable work, but this fussbudget often is both distracted and distracting with an assortment of quirks demonstrating his edgy irritability. A genial lad called Ginger Nut is a versatile office boy who in particular fetches refreshments from the street for the others, one of the more popular of which is the spicy cake for which he has been named.

When Standard receives a lucrative appointment as Master of Chancery for the state of New York, he realizes that he will need an additional employee, who of course will be the eponymous Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby at first is an ideal worker, even a model for the others in his delighted employer’s eyes. But a crucial wrinkle later appears when the amazingly prodigious but largely silent fellow begins to resist the basic requirements of his boss, his common brief response (that is, when he chooses to give one) being a taciturn "I would prefer not to." His resistance grows such that Bartleby becomes a disabling and virtually haunting presence in the workplace.

Because Bartleby’s thoroughly passive nature so mutes his apparently disturbed personality, even some diehard Melville fans resist the work, notwithstanding its remarkable use of local color and vivid depiction of oddity in several characters. Adaptor Lane’s instinct in dramatizing the material is remarkably intuitive and skillful, notably bringing out the understated pain and complexity of the title character with almost cinematic intensity, and the intimate Blue Heron stage is ideal for conveying the requisite close-ups. Marco Quaglia handles the title role with consistency and appropriate subtlety.

In the much more demanding role of Standard, veteran Gerry Bamman must in effect be the gentle narrator of the story as well as the most loquacious and sensitive character on the stage, and his ability to sharply switch back and forth from character to narrator is stellar, sometimes deftly done by no more than a fleeting glance to the audience. While Standard’s considerable bluster in response to Bartleby’s increasingly exasperating behavior may surprise some familiar with the story, Bamman never departs from the essentials of his character, and resoundingly commands the stage, never warranting a charge of excess. The entire cast of eight is uniformly strong, with especially indelible impressions made by Sterling Coyne as a portly and gabby Turkey and Brian Linden as a lithe Ginger Nut, the latter even masterfully rendering a song a capella in an attempt to cheer the intransigent Bartleby. The acting company is admirably supported by its production team, with special praise due to Harry Feiner’s efficient designs, Dennis Ballard’s evocative costumes, and David Margolin Lawson’s apt palette of sound, especially the recorded violin excerpts which beautifully underscore the play’s melancholy moments.

In the end, this production is a compelling and supremely worthy tribute to Melville’s creation, not only burnishing the literary source but also creating a notable work for another artistic medium. Standard’s perplexed and succinct utterance as the play closes, "Ahh, humanity – !" resonates as a conclusion of what has become almost a religious experience to those of us who wince at the inexplicable failures of life.

Editor's Note: I saw this production a day before Brad Bradley and I couldn't have summed up its virtues any better. With the incessant talk about how the high cost of theater tickets contribute to the perennially ailing theater, it should also be pointed that this beautifully rendered play can be seen at a very affordable price. --- Elyse Sommer

Bartleby the Scrivener
By R.L. Lane, adapted from Herman Melville novella
Directed by Alessandro Fabrizi
Cast: Gerry Bamman as Standard and Marco Quaglia as Bartleby; Jeff Burchfield (Landlord/Keeper), Sterling Coyne (Turkey), Hunter Gilmore (Ginger Nut), Robert Grossman (Grub Man), Christian Haines (Fairchild), and Brian Linden (Nippers).
Scenic and Lighting Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Dennis Ballard
Sound Design: David Margolin Lawson
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins without intermission
Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 East 24th Street SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 11/03/05 to 11/27/05; opening 11/06/05
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm with Sunday matinees at 3:00 with two additional performances on Monday, 11/21 at 8pm and Sat 11/26 at 3:00 pm.
Tickets: $19.00. Students and seniors: $15.00. TDF vouchers accepted.
Seating: General Admission.
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on November 5th press performance
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