Some theater companies carve their go-to niches until they become deep, slick grooves in which the ensemble endlessly spins its tires. Though specialization has its obvious merits, the risk, of course, is that those revolutions will dull the revelation that once sparked them.
For almost three decades, City Lit has thrown the book at our increasingly illiterate culture by faithfully adapting the printed page—both classics and lesser-known works—for the stage. Theirs is an honorable calling, and under McCabe’s steadfast tutelage, the company’s got this deal down to a science. Science, though, smacks of dutiful academic study, and that’s precisely what shackles the company’s latest lit-salvage operation.
It’s not that City Lit fails to render accurately Twain’s lesser-known late novel, a tragicomic indictment of racism. McCabe distills the story with economic precision: In a small mid-19th-century Missouri town, a slave mother, Roxana, switches her light-skinned baby with her master’s, only to see the intended reversal of fortune backfire terribly. And the acting is exceptionally well-balanced; Kingsley Day as the titular character is particularly well cast.
But by opting not to put any modern spin on the biracial allegory (in Barack’s backyard, no less), Pudd’nhead ultimately unravels as a bland archival exercise. When an adaptation doesn’t aspire to go beyond CliffsNotes in 3-D, why bother staging it at all?