Murphy Guyer is a playwright with great intelligence, a dark, nasty sense of humor and a complete lack of fear. Even though his latest effort is based on a work by the beloved Mark Twain, it’s hard to imagine a less commercial affair than the appallingly titled “The Emancipation of the Valet de Chambre.” It’s three hours long, wildly uneven, contains a variety of intermingled plot threads , and features so many spoutings of the “N” word that Ohio audiences did not seem to know what to make of this Cleveland Playhouse premiere. And yet for all its flaws, there’s a palpable freshness, a certain intellectual honesty and a delicious sense of irony on display.
As Twain aficionados know all too well, the structurally flawed “Pudd’nhead Wilson” is no folksy “Huck Finn.” Penned in the 1890s when Twain was fighting the timeless battle of being true to his own integrity while trying to write that stuff that would make him some bucks, this is a wacky story.
Part an indictment of slavery, part vaudeville-inspired escapism and part a detective yarn featuring the glamorous new science of fingerprinting, this darkly farcical affair has more plot strands to worry about than “Ragtime.”
Among the characters on display here are a pair of Italian Siamese twins (attached at the hip), an ante-bellum switched-at-birth scenario in which a fellow who thought he was white turns out to be black and a fingerprint guru by the name of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Even though that’s the title of the novel (detective yarns sold well at the time), Guyer makes the case in program notes that the true focus should be on the mixed-race duo of Tom Driscoll and Valet de Chambre.
Set in Missouri just before the Civil War, the main strand of the story concerns a mulatto slave named Roxy who ill-advisedly switches the aforementioned two babies just after their birth — her own fair-skinned child (Valet de Chambre) and that of her master (Driscoll). To the woman’s ultimate horror, her kid turns out to be a nasty racist willing to sell his own mama down the river.
As is obvious, the idea of perception trumping actual race was a politically potent idea in the 1980s (Willy Russell made much the same point in “Blood Brothers,” using kids of different classes).
The best scenes in this show are between mother Roxy (the terrific Siobhan Juanita Brown) and son Valet de Chambre (a nicely churlish Myk Watford). But the biggest problem is that the core issue upon which Guyer wishes to concentrate does not emerge as the main theme of the night.
The Siamese Italians take a lot of focus, ‘natch, and the end of the show is dominated by Keith Reddin’s Wilson doing his fingerprinting thing. Reddin (best known as a scribe himself) is very funny in the role, but you can’t help wishing you knew more about the racial triangle at the dark heart of the tale.
Even today though, we’re still not used to seeing the topic of slavery considered with any measure of irony, which is probably the quality and tone that makes this such a jarring piece of theater.
If Twain was using comedy to posit racial injustice, Guyer trumps the novelist with all kinds of strangely amusing twists, some of which work and some of which do not. Rather than reign in the original, Guyer revels in its idiosyncrasies and you have to listen and think hard for three hours in order to stay along for a noble theatrical ride that has compounded many of the structural problems of the source. The play needs big cuts and a lot of work.