'Doctor Faustus': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Chris Noth and Zach Grenier in 'Doctor Faustus'
This ill-conceived production does no favors to a 16th century work that admittedly is difficult to bring off

Chris Noth plays the title role in this off-Broadway revival of Christopher Marlowe's classic Elizabethan play, which also features Zach Grenier of 'The Good Wife.'

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is performed so rarely on our shores, it's a shame that the current revival by the Classic Stage Company is such an ill-conceived mess. Starring a miscast Chris Noth in the title role, this rendition directed by Andrei Belgrader strains so hard to emphasize the Elizabethan play's farcical aspects that it totally extinguishes its emotional resonance. At the end, Doctor Faustus may indeed wind up eternally damned, but you won't care a whit.

Inspired by the legend popularized in Germany the previous century, the 1592 play begins with Faustus, bored with his scholarly pursuits of such subjects as law, medicine and theology, deciding to explore the dark arts instead. He thus summons Lucifer's representative Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier), who first enters as a fearsome beast before acceding to Faustus' request to appear in human form.

Faustus proposes that in exchange for 24 more years on Earth, during which he'll be granted extraordinary powers, he will sell his soul to the devil in a bargain sealed with his own blood. His new abilities largely result in juvenile behavior, such as when he makes himself invisible so he can play practical jokes on a flummoxed Pope. Asking Mephistopheles for a bride, he eagerly accepts the counteroffer to partake of the erotic delights of a very naked Helen of Troy (Marina Lazzaretto).

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There's also plenty of buffoonery, mainly provided by a pair of clowns (Lucas Caleb Rooney, Ken Cheeseman) who make Shakespeare's fools seem sophisticated by comparison. Breaking the fourth wall, they frequently involve the audience in their shenanigans, including inviting a woman to perform a dance (the recruit good-naturedly obliged) and leading the crowd in a sing-along.

"We're coming for each and every one of you," one of them warns, striking fear in the hearts of those allergic to audience participation.

At one point a white-suited Lucifer (Jeffrey Binder), resembling a demonic Tom Wolfe, shows up to demonstrate the Seven Deadly Sins, so vulgarly enacted by the performers that we, if not Faustus, will be scared straight. Alexander the Great also makes a brief appearance, mainly looking confused.

The 16th century play is difficult to bring off successfully, and CSC deserves credit for attempting it. But this version goes seriously awry. It's been adapted for the occasion by the director and David Bridel, and to say that it was done loosely is an understatement. At one point Faustus quotes the phrase "Que sera, sera," and later, when asked why Lucifer feels the need for companionship in the infernal regions, Mephistopheles breezily replies, "Misery loves company."

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Noth tries hard, but his vocally underpowered performance fails to do justice to the blank verse, and he's never quite able to shake off his contemporary demeanor. On the other hand, Grenier — who has made a career specialty of devilish characters, his scheming lawyer on The Good Wife being the latest example — is wonderfully creepy, oozing venality in seductively understated fashion. The supporting players, all in multiple roles, at least display admirable conviction.

By the time the tedious, seemingly endless proceedings reach their conclusion, viewers may well be wondering if they've been consigned to hell themselves.

Cast: Jeffrey Binder, Ken Cheeseman, Zach Grenier, Carmen M. Herlihy, Walker Jones, Marina Lazzaretto, Chris Noth, Geoffrey Owens, Lucas Caleb Rooney
Playwright: Christopher Marlowe
Adaptors: David Bridel, Andrei Belgrader
Director: Andrei Belgrader
Set designer: Tony Straiges
Costume designers: Rita Ryack, Martin Schnellinger
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music and sound designer: Fabian Obispo
Presented by Classic Stage Company