Playwright R.L. Lane has set himself a considerable task in adapting “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s novella about a morose young copyist whose impenetrable melancholy proves the undoing of his Wall Street boss. Like other gloomy works of the time — “The Raven” comes to mind — the story revolves around a largely conceptual character, a silent force of nature defined by stagnancy. It takes a delicate hand to transform such inaction into viable stage life, but Lane, along with the excellent team behind the play’s American premiere, does it with chilling skill.
All are attuned to the story’s sense of dread. Director Alessandro Fabrizi makes excellent use of the tiny Blue Heron Theater, adapting its cramped quarters to capture the claustrophobia inside the offices of Standard (Gerry Bamman), a Wall Street lawyer who hires Bartleby (Marco Quaglia) and then vainly tries to connect with him.
The first image predicts the tone: Sparsely lit on a corner of the set, and shoved so far forward he could be sitting in our laps, Standard chokes out a desperate assertion. “Yes! Like that!” he cries. “Stand like that for hours! Nothing moved him!” At first it’s unclear what this means, but the effect is masterfully dreadful.
And we soon learn that the lawyer is right: Bartleby just stands there, often consigned to the edge of the room while his fellow copyists busy themselves ignoring him. At one point they even hide him behind a screen, as though out of sight could mean out of mind.
But Quaglia gives the scrivener a burning intensity — eyes focused on the invisible, hand gripped fiercely on a quill — that can’t be ignored. Furthermore, Fabrizi times the actor’s larger gestures to steal focus, reminding us that this creature is always onstage. It’s clear his dark presence will be neither banished nor understood.
These touches are made ghastlier by Harry Feiner’s set and lights. Everything in the office — from the blank sheets of paper to the translucent, painted windows on the backdrop — is ash gray, as though pulled from some macabre artist’s sketchbook. Meanwhile, Bartleby tends to be lit from behind, disappearing in shadow while a cold glare floods the faces of his wearying co-workers.
Palpable as it is, this gothic mood might become tedious if the rest of the cast didn’t battle it with such vibrant life. In particular, Sterling Coyne and Brian Linden make a winning comic team as Standard’s other copyists. They give rich specificity to their quirks and petty squabbles, making them far more engaging than the usual sidekicks.
Ultimately, though, it’s Bamman who must carry the play, and he more than succeeds. His remarkable perf sculpts countless detailed steps in Standard’s journey from confident success to a man made hollow by his clerk’s impassability.
Never once does he mark this change with hysterics. When Bartleby first refuses to do his work — uttering the famous retort “I would prefer not to” — Bamman responds not with bellowing but confusion. Standard, he’s telling us, is so genially certain he’ll be obeyed that he’s never even considered the alternative. His quiet shock at this new possibility gains increasing depth as the surprises get decidedly worse.
Bamman’s work is compelling enough to push through the script’s inert later scenes, when Lane briefly succumbs to short-story technique by sacrificing action for inner reflection. For a few long minutes, the play loses its tone and overemphasizes through language what’s clear on the actors’ faces.
But the cold rushes back for the stark conclusion, and the production maintains its choking hold.