"What's New, Tomcat?"
In 1963, when Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s brilliantly unconventional movie version of Henry Fielding’s hilariously raunchy 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, opened, 23-year-old Welsh pop singer, Tom Jones, was just breaking into show business. Less than two years later, Jones became an international star with his recording of “It’s Not Unusual”; his personal life—married to the same woman from the age of 17 until her death in 2016 while nonetheless having multiple affairs—demonstrated that this great star’s parents could have given him no more fitting name than that of Fielding’s irrepressibly randy, 19-year-old, sexy tomcat.
|Evan Ruggiero, Rene Ruiz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Acito and Engelhardt have stripped the 18 chapters (or “books”) of Fielding’s picaresque novel down to a two-act romp (with a 15-minute intermission) running nearly two hours and 20 minutes (although advertised as an hour and 45). It might not feel so long were it not for the metal, low-backed, barstool-like chairs at the Cell (or nancy manocherian’s the cell as it seems to prefer being called); they’re so high your feet either rest on a slim crossbar or dangle. They get my vote as the most uncomfortable in the New York theatre.
|Adam B. Shapiro, Matthew McGloin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Commenting on the action is a comical narrator, a barber-surgeon named Partridge (Rene Ruiz), who also participates in the narrative as Tom’s sidekick, putative father, and others. The story itself focuses on the relationship between Squire Allworthy (Tony Perry), of Somerset, and two young men, the goodhearted Tom Jones (Evan Ruggiero), a bastard foundling the squire took in and raised, and the ratfink Mr. Bilful (Trey Gowdy lookalike Matthew McGloin), jealous son of Allworthy’s sister Bridget (Cheryl Stern).
|Company of Bastard Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tom’s sexual escapades with various women, including the servant Molly (Alie B. Gorrie), whom he believes he’s made pregnant (a belief fostered by his weakness in mathematics); Lady Bellaston (Crystal Lucas-Perry), an aristocratic nympho; Mrs. Waters (Lucas-Perry), a woman Tom rescues; and Sophia Shepherd (Elena Wang), his true love, are commingled with the story of Tom’s birth and true identity, his position as an heir to Allworthy’s fortunes, his joining the British army, and so on.
|Tony Perry (above), Rene Ruiz, Evan Ruggiero, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For some reason, Sophia’s last name has been changed from Fielding’s Western to Shepherd, and her father, Squire Western, is transmogrified into Rev. Shepherd (Adam B. Shapiro), a buffoonish fire and brimstone preacher, obsessed with Tom’s fornicating proclivities. But this is a minor question in an irreverent spoof in the Theatre of the Ridiculous tradition that takes neither Fielding nor itself seriously.
|Matthew McGloin, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Staged by Acito with an imaginative flair for physical action—his complex fight scenes in close quarters, with multiple characters wielding weapons, fists, and feet are highlights—the rambunctious production has the air of a devised theatre piece birthed by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. This results in a carefully calibrated cacophony of door slamming, head banging, and otherwise free-swinging mayhem, supplemented by Joe Barros’s vibrantly energetic choreography.
|Evan Ruggiero, Alie B. Gorrie, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aside from three well-used doors on the Cell’s permanent balcony, above and behind the general acting area, there’s no set to speak of, making Gertjan Houben’s expert lighting work overtime to enhance the show’s visuals. In fact, Bastard Jones is the kind of show where a few cleverly used props replace the set when used for a variety of purposes other than their original ones.
A basket becomes a pregnant belly, or a table, with its center leaf removed, is converted to a wagon drawn by actors playing horses; held vertically, it’s a wall with a window through which an actor sticks his head. Sexual hijinks are viewed in shadow pantomime through backlit sheets. Supplementing the let’s-put-on-a-show feeling are Siena Zoë’s costumes and wigs, a wild, nonsensical conglomeration of found elements from multiple sources, only a tiny few suggesting the 18th century.
|Alie B. Gorrie, Matthew McGloin, Adam B. Shapiro, Evan Ruggiero. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The actors, most of whom play multiple roles, are equally eclectic, crossing gender and racial lines and even including two disabled artists. This is actually the third production I’ve seen this month—the others are The Cost of Living and The Artificial Jungle—in which actors with so-called handicaps display excellent talents Ruggiero, for instance, who lost much of his right leg to bone cancer, plays the lusty Tom with an old-fashioned peg leg that does little to prevent him from climbing all over the furniture or even doing a soft-shoe vaudeville routine with Rene Ruiz’s Partridge. And Alie B. Gorie’s being legally blind is no hindrance to her participation in the knockabout staging and dance numbers.
Engelhardt’s music is generally fun, with large infusions of rock and other upbeat styles, but there’s little here that will last beyond the show it’s written for. Engelhardt and Acito’s lyrics range from clever to serviceable and the songs all get worthy performances from everyone in the well-cast show. Of particular note are the beautiful Elena Wang, gifted with marvelous pipes, and Crystal Lucas-Perry, who rocks her numbers bigtime.
|Rene Ruiz, Cheryl Stern. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show’s biggest drawback is its sophomoric humor, especially the attempts to wring laughs from the more salacious references and stage business. Although there was frequent laughter when I went, almost every joke had a winking, isn’t-this-funny juvenility that more frequently missed than hit, like what you’d expect from a college fraternity show. Malapropisms mount, puns are plentiful (fiesta résistance, quel frommage, etc.), farts are frequent, and lines like “I fart on your happiness” get the loudest laughs.
According to Acito’s program note, he and Engelhardt are concerned about communicating the social criticism regarding human rights in Fielding’s satirical writing, but, given the nonstop barrage of singing, dancing, fighting, lovemaking, and general silliness on view, few visitors are going to pay much attention to Bastard Jones’s themes. If they like its brand of broad humor and sexual liberation they’ll have a good time. And, even if, like me, they find themselves groaning at the poor puns and frowning at the clownish campiness, they’ll likely enjoy the joie de vivre of Bastard Jones.
P.S. It was just announced that Bastard Jones has raised $10,000 for Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, dedicated to ending homelessness of LGBTQ youth.
nancy manocherian’s the cell
338 W. 23rd St., NYC
Through July 14