How can you go wrong with a tale that begins with the immortal line "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." and concludes with the sublime "It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before..."? These foolproof sentiments, which bookend Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities, are the very stuff of drama, and they are persuasively rendered in the current St. Louis Shakespeare adaptation of Dickens' ever-popular saga of status and revolution. It's what comes in between the bookends that gives one pause.
The best stage and film adaptations and this includes those that have taken pruning shears to Dickens succeed in capturing the intent of their source material. But they are ruthless about guillotining anything that does not move the action forward. This version, which seems determined to include every single character in the 400-page novel, is far too faithful to the original 1859 novel. There's so much exposition here, and it comes at the expense of already-thin characters.
When you tell too much story on the stage, you run the risk of telling no story at all. At the intermission of the opening-night performance, an amazing thing occurred, something I've never seen before. Wherever I looked people in the row in front of me, in the row behind me, across the aisle everyone in the theater was doing the same thing: They were reading the synopsis in the playbill. A Tale of Two Cities unspools one of the most famous stories in all literature, and by the end of Act One no one knew what was going on.
But let's not heap sole blame on the adaptation. Director Milt Zoth has failed to recall this story to life. He doesn't know what to do with his 26-actor cast. His stage pictures aren't pictorial. The actors come on, they go off, again and again, to little effect. There's no clear visual concept of what the show is trying to say or even why this tale is being retold. So we're left to cling to isolated moments. Tyler Vickers, for instance, is great fun as the irreverent Jerry Cruncher. But because no clear connective is made between Jerry's dastardly grave-robbing and the plot's principal theme of resurrection, we don't see how Cruncher fits into the overall scheme. Vickers ends up being delightfully expendable.
Fortunately the evening is well served by Andrew Michael Neiman as doomed protagonist Sydney Carton. The show is never dull when Neiman is onstage. He is neither as sentimental as Ronald Colman nor as cynical as Dirk Bogarde, who both enacted Sydney onscreen. Neiman's Carton is more like an errant schoolboy. One feels that this dissolute sot is actually redeemable, thus making his grand gesture in the final minutes all the more believable and poignant. Neiman is well matched by Myron Freedman as Charles Darnay. On the page, Darnay is a bland leading man indeed, but Freedman instills Charles with compassion and bearing. When Carton's feelings toward Darnay evolve from hatred to admiration, we are able to see why. The occasional exchanges between these two provide the evening with its most realized and involving scenes. Alas, they are too few and far between.