Les Trois Dumas

Dumas fils . . . .Ryan Artzberger

Dumas fils . . . .Ryan Artzberger

Victor Hugo . . . . Peter Aylward

General/Alexis . . . . Leon Addison Brown

Napoleon . . . . .Jay K. DuVal

Harel/Governor . . . . . Wynn Harmon

Marie Louise/Mlle Mars . . . . .Kelley Hazen

Dumas pere . . . . .Keith Randolph Smith

Ida Ferrier . . . . Kim Wimmer

George Sand . . . .Pilar Witherspoon

They probably forgot to tell you in school, but the creator of the “The Three Musketeers” was a black man. So was Alexander Dumas’ father, General Thomas Alexandre Dumas, a military leader in Napoleon’s army. And so was his son, Alexander Dumas fils, the renowned author of “Camille.” Understandably attracted to this historic collision of European power structures, literary genius and forces of racial intolerance, playwright Charles Smith’s latest work explores the biographies of “Les Trois Dumas.” But although Smith is a skillful and talented scribe, this grand sweep of generational history cannot be dramatically contained. Unwieldy and unfocused at its Indiana Rep premiere, “Les Trois Dumas” tries to do far too much.

Even though Alexander Dumas’ racial identity has been generally overlooked in historical accounts, Smith is not the first author to explore the life of this giant of popular romantic French literature in the nineteenth century: John MacNichols’ play “Dumas” premiered at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and was reviewed here in 1993.

MacNichols wisely focused on the relationship between les deux Dumas, pere and fils. They were an interesting historical pair.

With pop a cheerfully promiscuous hack, and his son an emotionally intense artiste, there are lots of chances for the modern writer to explore the familial and timeless contrasts between populism and passion; artifice and art; commerciality and sincere expressions of adoration. Throw the racial issue into the mix (the older Dumas was forced to play dissemble and scheme just to survive in an unforgiving French literary society, while young Dumas wouldn’t accept that he was black) and you have the basis of an engrossing personal and social drama.

Smith is the deeper and wiser writer (with the benefit here of working with director Tazewell Thompson, an adept hand at the staging of epic productions) and when this potentially strong play focuses on the battles between father and son, it’s fascinating.

Unfortunately, though, Smith has the drama take place before young fils had written a word, so the kid (played by Ryan Artzberger) comes off as something of a whiner without redeeming artistic merit. And much of the action of this unnecessarily complex play revolves around the grandfather in this trio of Dumas , who remains a shadowy and generally uninteresting figure.

Many of the work’s problems arise from Smith’s decision to cast much of the play in the form of the youngest Dumas’ nightmarish flashbacks. We don’t care much about the lad in the first place. And when you add a confusing double character of butler (in life) and General Thomas (in the dream), it all becomes terrible confusing and unfocused. There are also a number of troubling scenes involving the General’s white wife (Kelley Hazen), who comes off here as shrill, nasty and lacking in believability.

When the genial and savvy pere is romping around and explaining life to his son, playwright Smith is on much more certain ground. The ebullient Keith Randolph Smith is excellent as this literary wild man and there’s an intriguing sub-plot involving George Sand (Pilar Witherspoon), a cheerfully lesbian writer and producer, and Dumas’ rival, the sycophantic Victor Hugo (the strong Peter Aylward). The supporting players are generally solid (if sometimes overly earnest) and Donald Eastman’s faded set is appropriately grand, even if its central visual of a fallen chandelier is a unnecessary reminder of a certain musical spook.

Smith needs to nix some of the oblique stuff here (along with that shadowy third Dumas) and hone in on his interesting literary characters and their social interactions and personal dilemmas — they’re all large enough in themselves to quite fill an evening.

Les Trois Dumas

(DRAMA; INDIANA REPERTORY THEATRE; 607 SEATS; $ 33.50 TOP)

Production: INDIANA Repertory Theatre production of a drama in two acts by Charles Smith. Directed by Tazewell Thompson.

Crew: Sets, Donald Eastman; lights, Robert Wierzel; costumes, Merrily Murray-Walsh; composer, Fabian Obispo; dramaturg, Janet Allen. Opened, reviewed April 24, 1998. Running time: 2 HOURS 45 MINS.

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