There are many pitfalls to adapting George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare “1984,” and playwright Alan Lyddiard has encountered most of them in his double-plus-bad adaptation, playing at 59E59. Helmer Joe Tantalo adds loads of atmosphere, but atmosphere is not what this play needs — it requires a firm structure and some serious storytelling chops, both of which are absent. Gregory Konow is serviceable as the doomed Winston Smith, and Dustin Olson compelling as his recruiter, O’Brien, but the novel’s desperation is nowhere in the theater, at least not on the stage.
Lyddiard has substituted dialogue for drama, especially in the play’s lengthy final scene, which includes large sections of the final argument between Smith and O’Brien. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” instructs O’Brien. In Orwell’s novel, the power of the passage is rooted in the writer’s dense description of the hopeless world around him. Onstage, it doesn’t have much grounding in anything except the urgency the actors clearly feel and are trying to communicate.
The play opens with Smith being tortured, so right away we’re excused from any suspense about the outcome. Immediately thereafter, we hear the actors speaking with American accents (and, for reasons that defy comprehension, one very bad English accent), liberating the fundamentally British novel from its setting. What we’re left with is a guy who goes about his life in a totally unrecognizable totalitarian state in which most things suck.
It’s astonishing how far from the book the play gets in the first five minutes, especially since large passages in the script are taken whole cloth from Orwell’s writing. The book is not about some vague science-fictiony wasteland; it’s about what might happen to England if things went horribly wrong.
In order to illustrate the wrongness of it all, the novel is largely composed of things Smith does in a normal day, all slightly askew. A clock strikes thirteen; an average day at work involves falsifying records; an antique store sells beautiful things at low prices because no one loves beauty anymore. It’s tough to stage these actions interestingly in a work of narrative theater, but that didn’t stop Lyddiard and Tantalo from trying when they should have been creating a theatrical framework on top of Orwell’s meticulously imagined world.
That’s a pity, because there are plenty of directions in which to take the brilliant novel. Orwell practically begged for realism by keeping his dystopia relatively low tech and insinuating that everything in it could happen, and soon (published in 1949, its original title was “1948,” but publishers deemed that too grim). It drew on the author’s understandable paranoia following his part in the Spanish Civil War and his despair in the face of defeat. There’s a lot of tension and emotion in his writing, but this adaptation only skims the surface.
Godlight earned kudos for a more visual, entertainingly paced literary adaptation, “Fahrenheit 451.” Where there’s a story, the company can clearly be counted on to tease it out. But where there isn’t one, it has an understandably hard time keeping both the aud’s interest and a sense of fidelity. With “1984,” Godlight should almost certainly have sacrificed the latter.