Rameau’s Nephew

by John Stoltenberg

There comes a scene in Rameau’s Nephew at Spooky Action Theater when Robert Bowen Smith playing He (the titular character) coughs an aria. Literally. Just like an opera singer except without music or lyrics. He goes on and on wordlessly, hackingly, raspingly, inflecting cough after ridiculous cough with a sincere and silly musicality that had me howling with laughter.

The stunt stopped the show. Remarkably it apparently left Smith’s vocal cords unscathed, for he was not the least bit hoarse after. And in retrospect this passage was the only time in the play when his character uttered something morally neutral. Because pretty much all the rest of the time, he was a shameless reprobate who reveled in his self-aggrandizing amorality the way a pig  delights in mud. (I’m not going to say how, because so much of the fun of the show is finding out how ingeniously this penniless fellow survives by being a conniving cad.)

Smith’s antic tour-de-force performance—a reason to rush to see this show—somehow turns the character’s appallingly selfish ethos into endlessly entertaining sketch comedy. I cannot recall a more enjoyable character on stage whose value system is so utterly bereft of a care for anyone but himself.

Rameau’s Nephew—directed deftly by Richard Henrich—is essentially a quick-witted comedy of morals, in which someone so profligate  must of course have someone proper to scandalize and shock. The straight man, accordingly, is a cerebral character the program calls I, a bourgeois fop played by Ian LeValley with punctilious panache.

The debate between them, all of it bristling with wit, is not at all one-sided. In fact the script by Shelly Barc and Andrei Belgrader adapted from Denis Diderot’s 18-century classic dialogue is surprisingly even-handed in its treatment of the two.

The character He, it turns out, does have one virtue, a talent for music. And in the end the character I finds himself marveling that the character He is so “attuned to music but deaf to morality.”

Ethics tends to be the engine of much of my favorite theater. When done well, the contest of morals in the conflicts between characters provides some of the art form’s most satisfying pleasures and unique provocations, a point in time and space where esthetics and ethics do a pas de deux that begins on a stage and continues in one’s mind. Such an event is now happening at Spooky Action in a  smart, scintillating, and side-splitting  production of Rameau’s Nephew.

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