"Our Country's Good" is, in a curious way, about the recovery of innocence.
Timberlake Wertenbaker's witty, elegantly written play shows prisoners in 18th-century Australia putting on a play for their fellow inmates. In the course of working on George Farquhar's comedy "The Recruiting Officer," they reclaim a dignity and modesty their years of criminal activity and the inequities of the judicial system have stripped from them.
At the very end of the evening, the "actors" wait to make their entrance, fearful of the braying of their brutish audience. They have been transformed from embittered, anti-social creatures, their reflexes as sharp and mistrustful as animals', into nervous, deeply vulnerable human beings.
It is a thrilling, moving transformation, which Wertenbaker has charted with great care, showing first their brutalization, then their slow awakening to emotions and sentiments they have either forgotten or never known. Lest this sound like 18th-century group therapy, I must emphasize how funny "Our Country's Good" is.
The play's abundant humor is offset by scenes showing the cruelty of those who run the prison colony, some of whom are in as great need of redemption as the inmates. One weakness of the production is that some of these scenes could be much harsher than they are.
There is strong work by Tracey Ellis, as the most touching of the convicts; Richard Poe, as a prisoner eagerly embracing the English language; Sam Tsoutsouvas, as the most hungrily theatrical convict, and J. Smith-Cameron and Amelia Campbell as brazen inmates. Adam LeFevre has charm as a reluctant hangman.
Cherry Jones gives a standout performance, making clear how the rage life has poured into her can, with Farquhar's words, give her surprising moral force. Alas, in the key role of the director of the play, the normall winning Peter Frechette captures only the theatricality of the role, not its human underpinnings.
The early part of the play is disorienting. The English accents are not always consistent, and the acting is often too broad. The scenes end with fadeouts that invariably seem a beat off. Nevertheless, "Our Country's Good" is an unusually civilized, moving, entertaining play.
The location is lousy, the play has no stars, and even its bizarre comic moments are as black as looming thunder. Yet this morning Broadway has something to cheer about - an absolutely fascinating play which opened last night at the unfashionable Nederlander Theater - Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good."
This, incidentally, is the second play to be produced under the cheaper-seat policy of the Broadway Alliance. And although that scores no brownie points, it is good, even salutary, to see this laudable attempt to cut Broadway costs once again resulting in no likewise loss of Broadway production values.
But, of course, the play's the thing, and this one vividly evokes the somber beginnings of Australia, rather as suggested in Robert Hughes' surgingly magnificent account, "The Fatal Shore," when convicts were carted overseas like cattle, to be dumped in Australia.
Called "transportation," it was an extraordinary and vicious concept, hardly better than the slave trade and rather more hypocritical. This dark time now becomes the background to a most engrossing drama which, in a Mark Lamos staging that originated at his Hartford Stage Company, proves shiveringly well-given.
Wertenbaker took her play from a novel "The Playmaker" by Thomas Keneally, which tells of the extraordinarily unusual factual circumstances of the first play to be staged in Australia, George Farquhar's "The Recruiting Officer," acted in 1788 by convicts under the direction of a Marine Second Lieutenant.
"Our Country's Good" had its premiere in 1988 at London's Royal Court Theater, where rewardingly it played in nightly repertory, using the same cast, with a full production of "The Recruiting Officer."
On recollection, I would say the London production was perhaps marginally the better-acted, but Lamos' completely new Broadway staging is in general certainly as effective, if not more, than its London predecessor.
Lamos and his scenic designer, Christopher Barreca, have strikingly envisaged the play in and against the backing of the raised skeletal hulk of a ship that looks like the abandoned bony carcass of a dinosaur. It makes the perfect ambiguous yet threatening setting for a play where 10 actors play 22 roles, occasionally without regard to gender or race.
The play's fast movement, with its shifting scenes, splits the action into flash-point vignettes. But as they proceed we get a coherent if provocative view of its cruel and mean world, with its oppressed and oppressors, on crime and punishment, and also odd insights regarding the strange effect working together on a piece of theater has on these most unlikely of actors.
Wertenbaker's fragmentary dramatic method - nowadays the theater borrows narrative techniques from the movies, rather as earlier the movies used to borrow from plays - makes huge and protean demands on its actors. Lamos' troupe - and I should mention the convincing costumes by Candice Donnelly and the persuasive lighting of Mimi Jordan Sherin - meet those demands valiantly.
With the exception of Peter Frechette, as the wimpish but determined Lt. Clark, the play's organizer, and Sam Tsoutsouvas, superb as both the colony's dour Advocate General and its first rambunctiously ham actor, the actors are pretty much unknown.
But, under Lamos' deft direction, each and every one does extremely well. Richard Poe particularly scores as both Governor and as Australia's first Jewish intellectual, as does a powerfully surly Cherry Jones as a recalcitrant convict with death hanging over her.
I urge you to see "Our Country's Good" and not simply because of its perception into a tumultuous period of human history, or even the by-the-side commentary it offers on the civilizing ways of culture. Most interestingly it is one of those comparatively rare plays with a strong aftertaste to it. It lingers in the consciousness. It plants a depth charge in the mind.
This is the final week of a parched Broadway season, so the timing could not be better for "Our Country's Good," a play that says, yes, the theater is important, inspiring, a boon to civilization. Actually, when you consider "La Bete" and "I Hate Hamlet," it could be argued that roughly half the new plays on Broadway this season delivered the very same gung-ho message about the theater, as if New York's producers were in a desperate conspiracy to reassure audiences (and themselves) that it is not a sign of certifiable insanity either to attend or to present drama in a commercial playhouse.
"Our Country's Good" -- an English play by an American writer set in Australia -- sometimes proves them right. It champions the theater with eloquence and, at its best, does so by example rather than by preaching. The author, Timberlake Wertenbaker, has adapted the work from a historical novel ("The Playmaker") by Thomas Keneally about the first play produced in Australia in its earliest days as a penal colony. The play was George Farquhar's "Recruiting Officer," a Restoration comedy of 1706, and the actors who performed it were the hungry and mostly illiterate criminals, outcasts and misfits that Georgian England had banished Down Under in 1788. Their director was a young lieutenant in the Royal Marines named Ralph Clark, who undertook the task as a noble experiment to free his charges at least temporarily from their eternal pattern of "crime and punishment."
It's a touching tale that almost seems too incredible to be true. The first sound one hears in "Our Country's Good" is the beating of a passenger on the ship bound for Sydney Cove. That cry of suffering is never forgotten, yet what follows is the fascinating spectacle of chained and brutalized prisoners, one of whom awaits hanging, giving their all to stage roles several class and cultural stations above their own feral existence. With the homeliest prop -- a piece of wood substituting for an aristocratic fan -- one scowling convict (Cherry Jones) with matted hair and rotting teeth gradually warms to the role of a rich lady. Another prisoner (Richard Poe), inebriated by the new possibilities of words, is inspired by "The Recruiting Officer" to attempt stage writing of his own, and still another (Tracey Ellis) acquires the dignity of Farquhar's heroine, Silvia, until finally she wins the offstage love of the director (Peter Frechette).
Such transcendent metamorphoses lovingly uphold the redemptive power of theatrical make-believe, both for those who practice it and those who watch it, and Ms. Wertenbaker is usually not pious about imparting that message. There is welcome backstage humor in "Our Country's Good" once its amateur actors, just like the most hardened professionals, start bickering about the size of their parts, their motivations and the sanctity of the playwright's text. However exotic and savage the surrounding environment, the "Recruiting Officer" rehearsals are not far removed in tone from the antic play-within-the-play rehearsals in such other recent English comedies as Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" and Alan Ayckbourn's "Chorus of Disapproval."
The only trouble with the theatrical sequences in "Our Country's Good" is their brevity and, especially in Act I, their infrequency. Ms. Wertenbaker's play had its premiere at the Royal Court Theater in London, and at her least inspired, she insists on carrying that company's distinctive ideological baggage even when it clearly impedes the compelling story she has to tell.
By far the most positive Royal Court influence on Ms. Wertenbaker is that of Caryl Churchill, whose imprint can be seen when the actresses playing convicts in "Our Country's Good" double in the roles of English officers. The cross-sexual casting not only echoes a Churchill comedy about colonialism ("Cloud 9") and, for added dividends, the farcical plot of "The Recruiting Officer" itself, but it also honors Ms. Wertenbaker's point about the subversive power of theater to liberate an audience from all shackles of reality, including divisions of sex and class. But the playwright's other Royal Court tics are dead weight. Australia's aborigines are represented by a token everyman, and a particularly guilt-ridden enlisted man is tormented in a mechanical subplot. In other lazy scenes, bearing Brechtian titles like "The Authorities Discuss the Merits of the Theater," the officers debate Ms. Wertenbaker's themes in instructional, anachronistic terms suitable for a British television chat show.
While the production's director, Mark Lamos of the Hartford Stage Company, does not always take full command of the expansive Nederlander Theater, the awkwardly staged incidental vignettes and the weaker performances are outweighed by his and his company's bolder theatrical strokes. Christopher Barreca, an imaginative young designer, makes an invaluable contribution with his set, which in abstract terms suggests both the historical and backstage realms of the play. Though Mr. Barreca's design is symbolically dominated by the skeletal hull of the ship that transported the convicts -- an apocalyptic Old Testament ark -- it also exposes the Nederlander's stage machinery and boasts an elegant yet soiled 18th-century front curtain emblemizing both the pride and primitivism of Sydney's first theatrical endeavor.
Perhaps because their roles are better written, the women dominate Mr. Lamos's acting company, with the remarkably versatile Ms. Jones and the stealthily intense Ms. Ellis both bridging their abrupt Act II transformations with an unsentimental subtlety missing from the script. No less impressive is Mr. Poe, who doubles vibrantly as the colony's liberal Governor and the one intellectual convict. In smaller roles, Adam LeFevre, Amelia Campbell and Sam Tsoutsouvas are most vivid.
For fans of Mr. Frechette, most recently seen in "Absent Friends" at the Manhattan Theater Club and "Thirtysomething" on television, "Our Country's Good" will be a disappointment. His performance as the earnest director is above reproach, but he alone in Mr. Lamos's cast has a single role and, despite some homesick soliloquies, a pale role at that. Easily Mr. Frechette's finest moment comes in the evening's denouement, when the curtain at last rises on "The Recruiting Officer" and its motley amateur company is seen in the wings, basking at last in the glow of its first footlights and first audience. While not all of "Our Country's Good" is so stirring, its inconsistencies, like its flashes of power, make it wholly representative of the season of Broadway drama it brings to a close.