“Theophilus North,” Thornton Wilder’s 1973 novel about a young man’s journey of self-discovery, has been adapted for the stage by actor-playwright Matthew Burnett and co-mounted by Arena Stage and Rochester, N.Y.’s Geva Theater Center. Light as a feather and just as aimless, the production is mildly amusing, but it won’t be replacing “Our Town” in the hearts of high school thesps.
Wilder’s last novel, “North” follows the exploits during one summer in the 1920s of a disenchanted Yale grad who quits his boring job to pursue the ambitions of his youth. His travels take him to the wealthy enclave of Newport, R.I., where he swaps his broken-down car for a bicycle and plunges into the workforce for the rich. Tennis pro, detective, actor and rascal are among the assignments taken by the resourceful opportunist, who solves the problems of the pampered elite while discovering his true calling.
Wilder’s familiar themes about American optimism, ingenuity and affirmations of goodness are much in evidence here, presented with his usual subtle humor. Burnett has culled an entertaining sampling of exploits from the book and they are staged by Mark Cuddy with a decided “Our Town” feel.
The Kreeger Theater stage is essentially bare throughout, save for an old bicycle mounted on a revolving pedestal and a sweeping ramp that offers altitude and perspective. The title character narrates the play, biking from one adventure to another with help from multiple role-playing supporters, all of whom remain steadfastly one-dimensional.
The play has a certain adolescent charm, but it suffers from one essential problem. While it offers a gently sarcastic lope through American society, with a message as a payoff from each escapade, it doesn’t build toward anything. It simply stops when its final message is delivered.
Matthew Floyd Miller, assisted by an even supporting cast, offers a nice turn as the eager and self-assured North, ready to solve anyone’s dilemma. Delightful period costumes by G.W. Mercier provide the feel of 1920s Newport.